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How One Testy Friendship May Keep Peace in Bosnia

Exhausted by war, two of the nation's leaders start to reconcile

Bosnia's newly elected leaders are old friends who became enemies. Now they're forced to work together again.

In April 1992, before Bosnia's war, and a few days after the first sniper shots were fired in the siege of Sarajevo, a secret meeting between the two leaders took place at the parliament building in a deserted Sarajevo.

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Momcilo Krajisnik, a Serb, was the speaker of the parliament. Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, was Bosnia's president.

Representing his rebellious ethnic group, Mr. Krajisnik told Mr. Izetbegovic he could still avoid war if he would agree to give up half of Sarajevo to the Bosnian Serbs. Izetbegovic refused, and a three-and-a-half year war began in which over 200,000 Bosnians were killed and 3 million people driven from their homes.

Izetbegovic and Krajisnik will be meeting again next week, as the Muslim and Serb representatives of Bosnia's newly elected three-member presidency.

"These are the people who know each other, for better or for worse, as they have told me," says Carl Bildt, the top UN mediator in Bosnia. "They've worked closely together ... and against each other for years. It's going to be very difficult for them."

While nine months of peace have helped soften tensions between the two leaders, very few of the issues that led to the brutal war here have been resolved. The issue that most threatens to derail power-sharing in the new Bosnian government is Bosnian Serb aspirations for secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Though the Dayton peace accords, which helped end the war, aimed to create a fluid boundary between Bosnia's two entities - the Serb statelet and the Muslim-Croat Federation - Bosnian Serb leaders have treated their entity as a sovereign country and prevented non-Serbs from returning to their homes.

Bosnian Serb leaders had hoped the de facto partition they have created through ethnic cleansing would translate into an easy political secession from the rest of Bosnia.

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Diplomats here insist that Bosnian Serbs are going to have to rein in their desire for secession if they want Bosnia's new power-sharing government to work.

"If power-sharing doesn't work now, then the future of this country is very bleak indeed," Mr. Bildt says.

Now President-elect Krajisnik says he is willing to sacrifice Serb desires for secession in order to prevent further war.

"Utopia has cost us too much blood," Krajisnik said in Pale, the Bosnian Serb capital, last week. "Our wish [to separate] will always stay. But if we are not realistic, we have no future."

Izetbegovic, who preliminary election results indicate has won the chairman of the three-member presidency, is optimistic that the memory of the devastating war experience will help the leaders put aside their differences, to make the postwar government succeed where the prewar government disintegrated.

"The situation resembles the one before but under completely different conditions," Izetbegovic told reporters last week at the presidency. "Even though Krajisnik is here again, he is here under totally different conditions."

Presidents-elect Krajisnik and Izetbegovic will joint the Croat representative, Kresimir Zubak, to lead the new Bosnian government through what by all accounts will be one of the most challenging periods in its history.

Bildt has unveiled his "quick start" program, which aims to rush Bosnia through its limping postwar period to political and economic stabilization. The World Bank has promised the newly elected government a new donors' conference in January to pledge continued funds for the tasks of destroying the country's many land mines, creating employment for demobilized soldiers, rebuilding infrastructure, and restoring Bosnia's prewar quality of life.

Asked if he thinks the new power-sharing government will work, Bildt says yes, "over time, with major problems, and with the sustained commitment of the international community. Immediately, if we leave in December, no."

Bildt's aides are now scrambling to overcome obstacles threatening to ruin the first meeting between the new presidents. Krajisnik has said he refuses to meet in Muslim-held Sarajevo. He wants to meet in a building somewhere on the boundary line that separates the Muslim-Croat Federation from the Serb entity, with separate doors that open onto each side. He has also balked at the provision in the Dayton accords that gives Izetbegovic - who received the most votes of the three presidents - chairmanship of the joint presidency for two years.

In spite of these obstacles, the time after the elections is one of renewed optimism here. The new leaders have expressed some willingness to compromise to make the government work and to bring their people the benefits of peace.

Aides to Izetbegovic say he still has the pen Krajisnik gave him at the meeting when the two leaders separated in 1992.

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