Washington, Feb. 22 (RFE/RL) - America's former chief negotiator on Bosnia, Richard Holbrooke, says he is very concerned about the situation in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar.
He spoke at a press conference Wednesday about the importance of Mostar and gave a sober assessment of prospects for peace in Bosnia as well as some new insights into last weekend's conference on Bosnia in Rome.
Wednesday was Holbrooke's last day in office. He has resigned from the position of Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs to return to private life and take a job in investment banking.
At the press conference, Holbrooke said "Mostar is a bigger problem than Sarajevo right now," referring to tensions between Mostar's Muslim and Croatian residents and Croats' reluctance to share administration of the city.
He says Mostar was the most troublesome issue at last weekend's Rome conference. "The great drama in Rome was over Mostar," he said, recalling that the two mayors of the conflicted ethnic groups argued for more than an hour over one high school before working out an arrangement to make it a communal structure.
Holbrooke sees Mostar as a test case of the joint Bosnian Muslim and Croatian Federation, established by a 1994 Washington agreement.
He says that if the Federation is not viable, in a year when the foreign troops end their peacekeeping mission, "the country could fracture into three parts."
The commitments made in Rome to sharing power, and forming a joint police force among other things must be carried out, Holbrooke said, warning that "if it isn't working at the end of ten months, it will be very serious."
The U.S. is trying hard to preserve what remains of the multi-ethnic character of the region and prevent further dislocations of the population.
Holbrooke, as well as Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Wednesday appealed to longtime Serb residents of Sarajevo to remain in their homes.
Reports said thousands are fleeing to Pale before five Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo are handed over to the country's Muslim-Croat federation. The Pale district, current headquarters of the self-styled Bosnian Serb leadership, is to remain under Bosnian Serb control.
Holbrooke says working relations between the presidents of Serbia and Bosnia appear to be improving. He says Bosnia's Alija Izetbegovic and Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic clearly got on better together in Rome than they did in December in Dayton, Ohio.
Holbrooke says "they don't like each other... but they are beginning to realize they each have a vested interest in the success of the Dayton peace accords."
Another major problem discussed in Rome concerned war criminals and a reluctance on the part of local authorities to arrest them. Holbrooke said he talked to Milosevic about it "very frankly" and telepohoned him Tuesday to continue the dialogue.
"This is a central challenge to the Dayton accords," Holbrooke said, adding that he does not think "implementation can succeed while these indicted war criminals remain in power openly attempting to subvert Dayton."
But he says the problem is narrowing because of a growing isolation of the Bosnian Serb leadership. "The overwhelming majority of Serbs in Bosnia want peace although they're very distrustful of each other," Holbrooke says.
Asked about the future, Holbrooke says he views Bosnia's chances for peace realistically and is well aware of the many difficulties in implementing the Dayton accords.
He made no predictions for 1997, after the NATO peacekeeping force withdraws. Holbrooke said there would be no slippage on the withdrawal date, that U.S. troops were in Bosnia only for 12 months and the Europeans have said they will not stay on without the Americans.
Holbrooke said only he is confident that NATO troops will leave Bosnia in a better shape than they found it. "We are not going to revert to the status quo ante of September 1995," he said, adding "I guarantee you the situation will be better."
But he said he couldn't predict how much better and left the question open whether America's vision of a single, stable Bosnia ruled by a three-person presidency and freely elected national assembly could or would ever be achieved.
However, Holbrooke said emphatically that America's determination would not waver and that the U.S. will continue to do all it can to build a lasting peace in Bosnia.
He says "it's not just Bosnia" and that much more is at stake. Comparing Bosnia events to the 1948 Berlin crisis when the U.S. responded to Stalin's challenge to the West by organizing an airlift and ultimately creating the NATO alliance, Holbrooke says "this is a seminal period in American foreign policy."
He says "the whole policy of the United States in Europe is being shaped in Bosnia," as well as the future of NATO.
He noted that for the first time since 1945, German troops are deployed outside Germany, that in a historic move, Russia has placed its troops under U.S. command in Bosnia and that the U.S. has put its full weight behind the Bosnia peacekeeping operations.
In the 1940s, the U.S. response kept Berlin triumphantly alive, stopped the advance of Soviet-style communism but divided Europe for half a century.
How will the crisis of the 1990s end? "We don't yet know," Holbrooke said.