U.S. News

Bosnians credit Holbrooke for peace, even if flawed

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Senior U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke won posthumous praise in Bosnia on Tuesday for brokering the Dayton treaty that ended its 1992-95 war -- even if peace since then has not been all that many had hoped for.

“It is amazingly symbolic that Holbrooke died exactly on the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Bosnia peace agreement, the day encapsulating his lifetime political achievement,” said Dragan Cavic, a former Bosnian Serb president.

The agreement, reached at a U.S. military base in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995 but formally signed on December 14 in Paris, was the result of relentless diplomatic shuttling by Holbrooke, known in the Balkans as the “Raging Bull” and “The Bulldozer.”

“The Dayton peace agreement has not died with him,” Cavic added. “His role and his penetrating and tireless diplomacy that came after a series of failed peace initiatives by European countries ended up resulting in peace in Bosnia.”

While serving as an assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton in 1994-95, Holbrooke earned a reputation for forceful tactics and cajoling he used to get opposing Balkan nationalist leaders to stop a war that killed 100,000 people.

“He was instrumental in bringing peace to Bosnia, an unjust peace no doubt, but that unjust peace was partly the fault of the whole international community,” said Haris Silajdzic, Bosnia’s wartime prime minister and foreign minister who was part of the Bosniak (Muslim) negotiating team at Dayton.


The Dayton accord stilled Europe’s worst bloodshed since World War Two but divided Bosnia into autonomous entities, the Serb Republic and Muslim-Croat federation, joined in an uneasy alliance under a weak central government.

Serbs and Croats had fought for separate statelets aligned with Serbia and Croatia respectively, while Bosnia’s Muslims, the largest single community, had wanted to preserve a strong central government, which they headed before and during the war.

“I think that he did what was possible to satisfy all rival sides, and it was a difficult task back then,” said Amir Gusic, a Bosniak taxi driver in Sarajevo.

Some Bosnians lament that the post-war political arrangement in Bosnia left it a broken, dysfunctional country.

“The entities have much higher authority than the (central) state,” said Slavo Kukic, a sociology teacher at the Croatian University in Mostar, alluding to Dayton’s legacy. “If we fail to intervene (constitutionally), we shall see the permanent disintegration of Bosnia, leading to its eventual dissolution.”

Holbrooke defended the two-entity structure of Bosnia.

“I always believed and still believe that the only way you can have a single country in Bosnia-Herzegovina is to have two entities,” he told Reuters in an interview in October 2008. Herzegovina is the mainly Croat southwest region of Bosnia.

Fifteen years after Dayton, Bosnia remains an international protectorate overseen by Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko.

“This was a treaty which was written at an airport in three weeks,” Inzko told Reuters. “Now, we can speak about shortcomings and we can overcome shortcomings. But we should do it in the spirit of Richard Holbrooke.”

Holbrooke’s death was also a blow to Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, standing trial for genocide in Bosnia at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Karadzic has repeatedly asserted that he and Holbrooke clinched a deal that he would not be pursued for war crimes, and wanted the diplomat to testify at his trial. Karadzic’s lawyer said the accused noted the death with “sadness and regret.”

“I believe that Holbrooke has taken with him to the grave many secrets of the war and peace in Bosnia, maybe a possible agreement with Radovan Karadzic,” said Zoran Zuza, a journalist from Karadzic’s wartime stronghold of Pale. “After his death, some of these secrets may be revealed to the people.”

Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in Belgrade and Gordana Katana in Banja Luka; editing by Mark Heinrich