Very early in the morning, US time, the then minister of foreign affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina Muhamed Šaćirbej announced the news which he wanted to be published in leading international media as soon as possible, as breaking news, to trusted reporters. He said that the peace talks to end the war in Bosnia had ended without success. That the presidents of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, today all late, Slobodan Milošević, Alija Izetbegović and Franjo Tuđman, would return home the same day. This meant that the bloody military attacks would start again. Šaćirbej also added, in order to confirm the authenticity of his message, that he would resign due to the failure of negotiations.
Most were convinced that Šaćirbej’s news was a factual description of the course of the meeting the night before, at the US airbase in Dayton, in the state of Ohio. That morning, almost exactly twenty-one year ago, on 21 November 1995, even the closest associates of former US president Bill Clinton believed the news. The chief US negotiator at these talks, organized with the aim to end the war in Bosnia, was Richard Holbrooke. He writes in his memoirs that he was called very early in the morning by David Martin, the correspondent of one of the major US television networks, CBS. I just need a confirmation of the news that we shall publish as breaking news in a few minutes, he said to Holbrooke, that the Dayton negotiations have ended. Holbrooke simply could not give other response. He said he did not know what Šaćirbej said, and that they should post that we are in complete crisis.
And so it was published. And so was the news understood by Clinton’s advisers in Washington: the negotiations have failed. One of the associates of US president later said that the opinions on such result were divided. Advisers for internal affairs understood that this meant that the president would not have to make the difficult decision to send US troops to Bosnia, an action he would have had to do if the negotiations had been successful. American public opinion, as surveys had shown, however, did not support such a decision and the new American elections were very close. At the same time, everyone realized that a lot of knowledge, diplomatic skills and the US reputation was invested in the success of the peace talks.
It was in those early morning hours of November 21, 1995, when a complete turn of events or at least a first step towards a different end of the day happened. A few minutes after eight o’clock, Tuđman and Milošević met completely unexpectedly. In fact, the Serbian president went to Croatian president with a new proposal. US services, of course, followed thoroughly every word said and analysed it even more thoroughly. Milošević proposed to sign a peace agreement even if Izetbegović leaves the negotiations. That is, as he proposed to the then US secretary of state Warren Christopher some ten minutes later, to give Izetbegović time and possibility to later sign the agreement which Milošević would sign with the Croatian president now.
Milošević and Tuđman had some kind of special relationship. At least from the first talks in March 1991 in the residence of Josip Broz Tito in Karađorđevo. The subject of their meeting was the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for which Tuđman was convinced that it was an artificial creation and that his mission was a re-establishment of the Banovina of Croatia from 1939.
Milošević, armed with the agility of then Yugoslav secret services, supplied Tuđman with all sorts of necessary rumors or even documents that would prove that the international community would more or less support such a decision on the division of Bosnia. Dr. Jože Pirjevec states in his book, The Yugoslav Wars 1991 – 2001, as an example of such supplying with convincing papers, aimed at strengthening of the conviction of Croatian president on the facts of the possibility of the division of the neighboring country, some document that was allegedly prepared in the NATO alliance.
More precisely, Milošević informed Tuđman that he had come into possession of the documents of the Western defence alliance according to which it allegedly advocated the expulsion of Muslims from Europe. That the path for international recognition of Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia is open.
Former Croatian president Stjepan Mesić spoke about the relationship between Tuđman and Milošević earlier this month, in an interview for the Croatian weekly Nacional. Two facts are interesting. The first one on the meeting in Visoka Street in Zagreb, after Tuđman returned from Karađorđevo. Mesić says that Tuđman immediately presented them Milošević’s offer on special military maps. Croatia should have received all the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina within the borders of Banovina in 1938, as well as cities Kladuša, Cazin and Bihać.
And also the second fact.
Mesić claims that Tuđman and Milošević communicated until the last day of work of the Croatian president, through a special phone line, whose device was placed in the president’s office at Pantovčak.
Izetbegović was probably informed about these special contacts and talks of the Croatian and Serbian president of the early nineties. Both Tuđman and Milošević saw their personal success in their contacts. Milošević, because he understood them as an agreement of Greater Serbia, and Tuđman, because he understood them as a confirmation of his thesis about the impossibility of survival of Bosnia and Herzegovina, about the possibility of forming of new state borders of bigger Croatia as well as about the fact that these talks were a sufficient guarantee that the then Yugoslav army would not attack Croatia.
Izetbegović might have even known that these contacts were not a coincidence. Or maybe he was even informed that they were only continuation of similar talks from the seventies, at least as far as the content is concerned.
Dobrica Ćosić writes in his diaries, Piščevi zapisi (Writer’s Records)1969-1980 about a visit, as it seems, in May or June 1978, of Tito’s former political and military fellow, later prisoner and dissident, Milovan Đilas, in Zagreb. He also met with the later Croatian president, Franjo Tuđman. And, as Ćosić writes, he returned to Belgrade disappointed. In fact, his Croatian colleagues, as he later told Ćosić, did not believe in the purpose of the survival of Yugoslavia, and instead defended its division between Croatia and Serbia, implying secession and independence of Slovenia. As Đilas explained, according to the opinion of his Zagreb colleagues, “Great Croatia” was reaching deep into the Serbian Srem, placing accross Bosnia and Herzegovina, dividing it based on religious and ethnic principles, somewhat following the principle that it should be acted as if Muslims do not exist.
That is why Izetbegović understood peace talks in Dayton primarily as a strong US and European guarantee of indivisibility of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its recognition as a unified state.
That morning of 21 November 1995, when it seemed that the negotiations would fail and that war and killing, theft, exodus and raping would continue in Bosnia, yet another twist happened. And it was once again created by Milošević. He promised that he would discipline political leadership of Bosnian Serbs in the coming days and make Radovan Karadžić sign subsequently the Dayton Agreement and he also agreed to a one-year process of arbitration for Brčko. Tuđman agreed. We must provide peace, he repeated in his Dayton apartment.
It was early in the morning, only after ten o’clock, when Izetbegović said that it was not just peace, but after a brief pause, when nobody knew what would be the next sentence, on which the fate of the peace agreement depended, he added although my people need peace.
Only an hour later, US president Clinton announced that the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina had the opportunity to leave the horrors of war and step into the promise of peace.