Press Briefing by National Security Council Senior Director for European Affairs Alexander Vershbow
The Briefing Room
10:14 A.M. EDT
MR. JOHNSON: Good morning. Since we presume that you all have a few more questions you'd like to have answers to, Sandy Vershbow, the Senior Director on the National Security Council staff for European Affairs, is here this morning and he'll be pleased to entertain your questions.
Q: Sandy, what has the Bosnian government agreed to as part of this deal? Are they fully signed on?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, first of all, this is not a two-way deal. The Bosnian Serb commitments we take as unilateral undertakings. The Bosnian government is not being asked to sign any documents to go along with this.
Q: Why not?
MR. VERSHBOW: The Bosnian Serbs expressed the desire that this be translated into a formal cessation of hostilities within the Sarajevo zone and they would like that to then be expanded into a country-wide cease-fire. But there are no quid pro quos here. We expect the Serbs to comply with the conditions according to the timetable that's been spelled out.
But we do note that the Bosnian government on Sunday made an assurance that they will not conduct offensive action against Serb positions inside the zone. We think that was a helpful statement and we understand it still stands.
Q: Well, is there anything to compel that, and what happens to this request for a cease-fire?
MR. VERSHBOW: No, there's nothing done to compel the Bosnians to do this. I think they understood that it would be a useful step to encourage the Serbs to comply with the conditions and to reestablish stability within the safe area. So they made that assurance on Sunday before this deal was concluded.
Q: Does that mean the war goes on?
Q: But the question is about the Bosnian government, is whether or not they are signed on in terms of commitment or whether or not they're raising significant objections. And there reports are in the region that, in fact, they are.
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, I think given the state of play on the battlefield, the Bosnian government is not immediately drawn to the idea of a country-wide cessation of hostilities. They, and in tandem with the Bosnian Croat forces, have been making some substantial gains in Western Bosnia, which goes well outside the scope of the safe area commitments that NATO and the U.N. are upholding. But I think inside Sarajevo the assurance of restraint I think played at least a part in the Bosnian Serb decision to comply with the conditions.
Q: And do you know any of the immediate effects on the ground there? Is the airport starting to be open? Are the roads starting to be open?
MR. VERSHBOW: I think we'll know more today. The U.N. has indicated that they're going to be conducting some test runs. They're going to be running several convoys along the roads that the Serbs are supposed to open up. They're prepared for a test flight into Sarajevo airport later today. That may depend on weather conditions. So we will know by the end of the day whether the first part of this, which requires 24 hours compliance, is being upheld.
Haven't seen any evidence yet of heavy weapon withdrawals, but we understand crews are on are the scene to witness that. We hope that we see early evidence.
Q: Crews of what?
MR. VERSHBOW: TV crews. (Laughter.)
Q: -- in ceasing military operations in the west and generally for failing to press their current advantage. To what degree does that impact this whole agreement? Is it likely to rise or fall on that, or not?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, we'll have to see what the Bosnian Serbs do. I mean, we were watching them quite vigilantly and, as the President said, if there's any sign that they're not living up to their commitments, the air strikes are going to resume. They have to make their own calculations about whether the damage that's been done to their military infrastructure, their communications, connected with the Sarajevo situation, has contributed to their setbacks in Western Bosnia.
But NATO has been defending the safe area. That is the extend of our commitment. If they comply, the air strikes will not only be suspended but ultimately terminated. But compliance is the key.
Q: Sandy, you keep talking about the very narrow issue of Sarajevo. But, really, the kind of security that you and the President have been talking about all along can only be guaranteed if there is the kind of broad peace that, obviously, the whole region is hoping for.
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, that's obviously what we're trying to achieve here. The air strikes are a narrow slice of the overall picture. We're trying to achieve at a rapid pace a comprehensive political settlement. Dick Holbrooke is still in Europe. He's today in Geneva for a Contact Group meeting, but he'll be heading back to Belgrade and Sarajevo over the weekend to continue the shuttle diplomacy on the elements of a peace settlement.
We still would like to see an actual deal signed within the coming weeks, and to the extent that the Serbs are now complying with the conditions regarding the safe areas it may create more favorable conditions for progress.
Q: There has in the past been a split between the Serbian political and military leadership. Do we have any reason to believe that that rift has been patched up, or does that still remain a problem?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, the document that they signed late Wednesday night that Dick Holbrooke conveyed to General Janvier is significant in that it was signed by Karadzic, Mladic, Krajisnic and Koljevic. So the civilian and military leaders all put their pen to paper. Whether that means they've ended their feuding and whether they will live up to this is what we will be watching in the next days and hours.
Q: Sandy, some people think this agreement doesn't go far enough and it's too soft. Why are the Serbs allowed to keep 100-millimeter guns around Sarajevo, the same guns that have killed a lot of people?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, I think --
Q: Could you repeat the question?
MR. VERSHBOW: The question was, why are the Serbs being allowed to keep certain categories of weapons, such as 100-millimeter guns. The U.N. I think will explain in greater detail what exactly is the definition of the heavy weapons that need to be withdrawn. I don't have that at the tip of my tongue. But the U.N. is defining the conditions, not the Bosnian Serbs. And we expect to see a full withdrawal of the categories of weapons that the U.N. lays down. We also expect them to get all weapons that could threaten the safety of planes coming into the airport out of range as well.
Q: And is Russia totally aboard on this latest agreement?
MR. VERSHBOW: As you know, Strobe Talbott was in Moscow, beginning yesterday, and he briefed Foreign Minister Kozyrev and other senior Russian officials on this Serb deal as it was taking shape. And from what I have heard, they were quite positive about this, seeing this as a way toward deescalating the situation around Sarajevo and returning the focus to the peace process, which is where we and the Russian and our European partners want to focus our energies. And I should repeat that within the diplomatic track, including at last Friday's meeting in Geneva, the Russians have been playing a very positive and supportive role.
Q: Haven't they all signed on to come to the peace table? This is a very narrow victory, isn't it, really, in terms of the war goes on in other parts of the country?
MR. VERSHBOW: As I said, this pertains to Sarajevo. It defuses a very tense situation there and, of course, we hope will lead to permanent peace for the civilian population of Sarajevo which has suffered so much at the hands of the Serb artillery. But the bigger challenge is to translate this small accomplishment into a peace settlement.
Q: Well, what is the next step then in terms of the diplomatic -- I mean, are they going to come to the peace table, or not?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, in terms of the process, we're focusing now, since the results of the Geneva meeting, on more shuttle diplomacy -- not a collective meeting of the parties, but a series of bilateral contacts in which we try to identify the areas of common ground and encourage the parties to move towards compromise positions.
At some point in the future we may call another meeting of the kind that was held in Geneva, or some other kind of multilateral gathering. But at this stage, the focus is on shuttle diplomacy, which we think enables us to bear down on each of the parties individually.
Q: Sandy, have you briefed members of --
Q: Could you explain in terms of the next step, I mean, what is the next concrete goal of the shuttle diplomacy? What are you trying to --
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, as you know, the Friday agreement in Geneva was very important in laying out some of the agreed basic principles of settlement and, in and of itself, resolve some of the thorniest issues, including the most fundamental one, that Bosnia will remain a single state with continuing international recognition. And it laid out at least some elements of the future constitutional arrangements that will be -- which will explain how this state is organized. There are some gaps, of course, in that such as how will the executive power be organized an exercised within this Bosnian state. And, of course, there's the even more thorny question of the map, and Holbrooke and company in this round are focusing intensively on the geographic issues.
Q: So the map comes first and the constitutional stuff --
MR. VERSHBOW: They're not kind of pursuing one issue at a time, but certainly the accent in these discussions is on the map.
Q: Can you relate this achievement around Sarajevo, assuming that it means that the practical of it militarily is that the goal of taking Sarajevo is now forsaken to the whole Serb ambition, and what its psychological and strategic importance may be in terms of an overall peace?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, I think it is quite important that the Serbs now have to accept that the international community is not going to allow them to strangle and terrorize Sarajevo the way that they have from the beginning of this war. There are large numbers of Serbs living within the Sarajevo district. So that remains a very thorny issue as far as the ultimate territorial arrangements that will be a part of this settlement. The Bosnian government believe that there should be a unified Sarajevo. And we enter this process supporting that objective.
The Bosnians have shown that they are capable of respecting the rights of the Serb minority. There are many Serbs living in the federation side of Sarajevo now, the so-called "loyal Serbs." So I think achieving a result which keeps Sarajevo unified is now more in prospect than it was before.
Q: Sandy, have you briefed members of Congress yet, and have you gotten any recent comments from Senator Dole on his intentions on the veto override on the embargo?
MR. VERSHBOW: We'll be briefing Congress in the course of the day on this agreement. And I'm not aware we've had any contact with Senator Dole as yet.
Q: Sandy, is the 51-49 percent agreement in Geneva still holding as part of the military change --
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, both sides in the Geneva agreement reaffirmed their acceptance of 51-49 -- excuse me, in the Serb case, for the first time they've now endorsed it. So that is the basis for the territorial negotiations. Now, that document says that adjustments are possible by mutual agreement. And if the parties themselves decide that a 52-48 split serves their interest, we're not going to stand in the way. But 51-49 in the starting point.
Q: Sandy, as you said earlier, the Bosnian government doesn't have at this stage an incentive to stop the fighting outside of Sarajevo since they are on the offensive. What kind of argument can you use to convince them to accept this general cessation of hostilities? Or is it maybe that you think that it's not the right time to stop the fighting since there is maybe a possibility to change the map on the ground to make negotiations easier later?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, we've always stressed that the final solution to this conflict will only be found at the negotiating table. The President just reaffirmed that a few minutes ago. And so we believe that winding down the war as quickly as possible and reaching early agreement on a peace settlement is the best way to achieve that goal. I think that a cease-fire or a cessation of hostilities would become a more realistic proposition as we get further along in the peace negotiations and as the parties see that they're going to get what they need through the negotiating process and they don't need to spill anymore blood to get it. But I think we're not quite at that point yet.
Q: So it's still be too early to really envisage a cease-fire, I mean, in terms of the balance of power on the ground?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, it's not so much a question of the balance of power on the ground, although that's clearly a factor in the psychology of the situation. But I think it's whether the parties see that they're going to get a satisfactory result in the negotiations, in which case they could spare their soldiers and their civilians anymore suffering. That's why we want to move as quickly as possible so we can get to that point when an end to the violence can be achieved.
Q: You mentioned earlier that one of the objectives of getting the heavy weapons out of the exclusion zone is protection of aircraft flying into Sarajevo. There are reports from the region that the Serbs will be permitted to keep 82- and 100-millimeter mortars -- and I assume the reason for that is they're so small they couldn't be detected anyway -- and antiaircraft guns. Are those reports inaccurate?
MR. VERSHBOW: I'd rather not be the one to confirm or deny because I'm not 100 percent sure what precisely the U.N. is listing as the weapons the Serbs must get out. I think they will be briefing in the course of the day.
Q: But just to confirm, Sandy, that you have seen no evidence so far, even though it's more than 12 hours, that the Serbs have started withdrawing any of their heavy weapons from the exclusion zone?
MR. VERSHBOW: That's what I heard shortly before coming in here, that we have not seen any withdrawals yet underway that we can confirm.
Q: Sandy, just to ask you the question that I asked the President, and that is whether or not there's a problem of getting Mr. Mladic and Mr. Karadzic to be part of the world community. What kinds of problems does that raise? And is the rest of the world just going to say, okay, war crimes don't matter anymore if we can get some agreement?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, it's one thing to have to negotiate with the people who are the instigators of this conflict and who need to make the necessary decisions to bring it to an end. It's another thing to in any way exonerate them after what they've been accused of, and now indicted for by the International War Crimes Tribunal.
We stand firmly by that Tribunal and will not in any way negotiate away our commitment to seeing all those guilty of war crimes brought to justice. And we will insist that when there is a settlement, that all the parties cooperate with the work of the International War Crimes Tribunal. That includes President Milosevic. So this is an issue that we attach fundamental importance to and we don't consider it something that we can bargain over.
Q: Why didn't you go for a country-wide cease-fire at this stage if you have the upper hand, the U.N. has the upper hand and NATO?
MR. VERSHBOW: The purpose of the NATO strikes was to secure Bosnian Serb respect for the safe areas. That's what the U.N. resolutions authorize and that's what NATO's decisions pertain to. NATO is not committed to using its air power to achieve a broader cease-fire country-wide, as much as that might be a desirable end.
So we insisted that the Serbs comply with our conditions. They have said they will. We'll be watching them like hawks to see that they do. And once we get past this phase of the crisis, we hope that the peace process will accelerate and then we can have a cease-fire.
Q: -- better sense at this point of how many U.S. troops will have to be sent as part of the NATO force?
MR. VERSHBOW: There's still no definitive numbers that we can say as far as the overall size of the NATO implementation force or the U.S. component of that. The NATO planning is still underway in Brussels and at SHAPE, and until we know the overall force requirements, we won't be able to take our own decision. But we will contribute a substantial share of the force.
Q: Can you say it's smaller than the figures that were used some months ago of 50,000?
MR. VERSHBOW: We can't even say that definitively it will be smaller because while the map might be more compact, coherent and, therefore, require somewhat fewer forces, it may only be a marginal difference as compared to earlier plans from two years ago, for example, connected with the Vance-Owen proposal.
Q: Eighteen thousand? That's what we've been reading.
MR. VERSHBOW: Eighteen thousand for the U.S.? That could be in the ballpark, plus or minus five or ten thousand -- who knows. (Laughter.) At least plus.
Q: What do you know about a Clinton-Yeltsin summit next month?
MR. JOHNSON: Let's stay on the subject here. Maura, you got a question on Bosnia?
Q: Yes. Oh, okay, I don't mind if he talks about the summit first.
MR. VERSHBOW: That's not my department.
Q: Just to get back to this whole cease-fire question. Are you saying that the Croat and Muslim successes in the west had nothing to do with Serb compliance? Isn't it helpful for you to have something happening on the ground? Are you saying that this change of heart on the Bosnian Serbs only have to do with air strikes?
MR. VERSHBOW: No, no, I wouldn't say that. I think it's their own stubbornness in refusing for over a week to comply with the NATO conditions that may have certainly contributed to their setbacks there. They had the choice to comply with the conditions, in which case the bombing would have stopped, their communications would not have been disrupted, their air defenses would not have been attacked. But they made the wrong choice and they suffer the consequences.
Q: I guess what we've been trying to get at, though, I mean, doesn't -- the fact it's not time yet for a cease-fire, doesn't the efforts on the ground that are being made by the Muslims and the Croats help --
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, I think to the extent that the Serbs realize that the tide is not rolling in their direction any longer may encourage them to agree to the compromises needed to reach a settlement -- compromises that they've been resisting for years. They signed the Vance-Owen plan, but then renounced it. They refused to sign the Owen-Stoltenberg plan when it was almost agreed at the end of 1993. They rejected the Contact Group plan with the 51-49 for over a year. Now, they've accepted those principles, though, I think it's just that they realize that the situation is going against them.
Q: But is that why it's not time yet for a cease-fire?
MR. VERSHBOW: The faster that they move in the negotiation -- and this applies to both sides -- the faster we can get to not only a cease-fire, but a settlement. That's the goal.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 10:35 A.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by National Security Council Senior Director for European Affairs Alexander Vershbow Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269898