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Peace Negotiators Owen, Stoltenberg Recall Karadzic

Owen (center) and Stoltenberg (right) arrive in Sarajevo in April 1994
Owen (center) and Stoltenberg (right) arrive in Sarajevo in April 1994
As the world continues to react to the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, RFE/RL Russian Service's Irina Lagunina spoke to two Western negotiators who knew the Bosnian wartime leader personally: former British Foreign Secretary David Owen and former Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg.

RFE/RL: Lord Owen, what was your reaction upon hearing of Karadzic's arrest?

David Owen: A feeling that Serbian President Boris Tadic has achieved a very important milestone and that hopefully it will be followed by General Ratko Mladic being arrested as well.

RFE/RL: You met with Karadzic many times between 1993-95, when you were serving as the EU co-chair of the Conference for the Former Yugoslavia. How would you describe your personal relations with him?

Owen: We are both by training physicians and I find it very hard to accept that a doctor could behave in the way that he did over ethnic cleansing, hostage taking, and abuse of human rights. I think at Srebrenica it will be shown that he acquiesced in an act of genocide.

RFE/RL: In your book "Balkan Odyssey," you write that you raised the question of war crimes with him during a meeting in Geneva in 1993.

Owen: Well, even really earlier than that. But Cyrus Vance, the former UN negotiator and the secretary of state in the United States, and I were asked by the secretary-general of the UN whether or not to establish a criminal court. And we recommended that it should be done, despite the fact that we were negotiating. We hoped that that would slow down, if not stop, the ethnic cleansing that was continuing on all through this time. So I had an interest in ensuring that this tribunal was successful. And I hoped that it would be.

RFE/RL: When you spoke about this with Karadzic, what was his reaction -- did he just dismiss it?

Yes, none of the Serbs -- whether [Slobodan] Milosevic, or any of them -- seemed to take the war crimes tribunal seriously. You know, they never asked for amnesty as any part of the many settlement plans that were advised. And it was just left that they were potentially people for whom arrest orders could be issued. But it was as if they thought they would triumph. It was a strange thing. They must have known of its existence and feared it, but they never gave any sign of wanting it to be part of the negotiations. It was as if, effectively, the threat of an arrest order had been lifted off them.

RFE/RL: What, in your opinion, did Karadzic hope to get out of that war?

Owen: He once said that "I told Owen not to dump us into the same sack, like cats and dogs; Serbs cannot live together with Muslims and Croats." He wanted ethnic separation, that was his objective; he wanted a Republika Srpska carved out of Bosnia and Herzegovina which would become an independent country. It would be predominantly occupied by Serbs -- if some Muslims and Croats wanted to stay on in small numbers that was alright, but effectively there should be Serb domination of towns and villages in Republika Srpska.

RFE/RL: How do you see Serbia after Karadzic's arrest?

Owen: I think Serbia has made a decision, it wants to join the European Union, it is prepared to work with the international community, and it has accepted that the price is they have to return Karadzic. I hope they realize it must also include Mladic, which will be difficult, which will be harder to do because he is protected by the Serbian military. But that must follow.

RFE/RL: You've said you hope that General Mladic's arrest will come next. Would you say that you harbor much stronger hostility toward him than toward Karadzic?

Owen: He is the mastermind of Srebrenica. And these issues will not be settled if he is allowed to be protected by the Serbian military. It's a fundamental question for the strength of the democracy in Belgrade, that they must be seen to be in control of the Serbian military.

RFE/RL: Mr. Stoltenberg, you replaced Cyrus Vance as special United Nations mediator in the Balkan crisis in 1993. What was your impression of Karadzic?

Thorvald Stoltenberg:
Well, he was, as you may recall, a tall person with lots of hair. He gave what we would call "presence." [When] he was present, people knew that he was in a room. But having said that, when I got to negotiate with him, and got to know him better, he was an extremely nervous person. And I remember [that] he was constantly biting his nails, and he was very difficult to negotiate with. Not that he was such a good negotiator, rather on the contrary -- he was jumping from one item to another and it was often quite difficult to know what his opinion was. And that meant that we had one agreement on Monday, and on Tuesday he had another opinion.

RFE/RL: You've said that you believe the problem with figures like Karadzic is that they truly believe they're doing the right thing.

Stoltenberg: The problem with people like Milosevic, with Karadzic, with [Augusto] Pinochet, they believe they are fighting a good cause. And they are intelligent enough to convince at least themselves that they are fighting a good cause. That's why I think the court, the [war crimes tribunal] in The Hague, was not a threat to them. They felt it was a question of who was winning the war. If they won the war, there would be other people in The Hague, in the European Union.

RFE/RL: In your opinion, what did Karadzic set out to achieve in Bosnia?

Stoltenberg: I don't know. He obviously wanted to strengthen the Serbian community and Serbian independence, but I don't think he tried to achieve more than that. And, mind you, he had part of his education in Denmark, so his model constantly -- he referred to his model in negotiations -- was to turn Republika Srpska into a Denmark in Bosnia. Because Karadzic was very much impressed by the Danes and his background in Denmark as a student and a research fellow.

RFE/RL: What attracted him so much to Denmark?

Stoltenberg: Democracy -- and equality. You know, these people believing that they do an important job, but they don't understand that you cannot use any means to do this. The bombing of Sarajevo was not only a terrible thing to do, but it was the most foolish thing, seen from a Serbian point of view. Every evening, the whole world could watch the Serbian bombing of Sarajevo.

RFE/RL: But you probably told him about that. How did he react to your words -- about Sarajevo, and about Srebrenica?

Stoltenberg: Well, Srebrenica he denied. He denied that it happened. And the bombing -- he tried to convince himself and others that it was necessary. But they all knew; and I think that he must have had at least some idea that this was worse for the Serbs than for the Bosnians.

An Architect Of War

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An Architect Of War

Karadzic is regarded as the mastermind of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.

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