WASHINGTON -- A Serbian opposition leader charged yesterday that American and European recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina in April doomed prospects of agreement among its three ethnic groups and thus contributed to the current fighting.
"Premature recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Europe and the United States in large measure contributed to the unfortunate situation we see today," Dragoljub Micunovic, president of Serbia's Democratic Party, said in an interview.
At the time of recognition, agreement was "within reach" among Bosnia's Serbs, Croats and Muslims at European Community-sponsored talks in Portugal, Mr. Micunovic said. The talks, aimed at setting up Swiss-style cantons, collapsed the same week.
The United States also failed to take into account the effect on the Yugoslav army based in Bosnia, he said. After recognition, part of the army was withdrawn to Serbia. The rest became a force acting in behalf of Bosnian Serbs and no longer totally under Belgrade's control, he said.
The United States in fact argued for keeping Yugoslavia intact as its member republics prepared to secede, and lagged behind the Europeans for several months before recognizing Croatia and Slovenia. It recognized those two independent republics and Bosnia-Herzegovina at once. The EC recognized an independent Bosnia the day before.
Mr. Micunovic nevertheless said the United States should have clung to its one-Yugoslavia policy longer.
"No question Yugoslavs were the main villains," he said. But the U.S. policy shift "contributed" to the strife.
Mr. Micunovic leads a long-suppressed party founded in 1901 that was reconstituted in 1990 and now forms the largest opposition parliamentary group.
A dissident since his youth, he was imprisoned for 1 1/2 years by the Tito regime in 1949. His visit to Washington this week included meetings with Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, the National Security Council's top European expert, David C. Gompert, and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.
His criticism of U.S. policy drew only a mild response yesterday from a State Department official who has followed Yugoslav developments.
"These are important arguments that we need to hear," the official said, reflecting the U.S. government's frustration in trying to influence events in the former Yugoslavia and an unwillingness to debate past events.
But the official took issue with Mr. Micunovic's suggestion that the Serbian army in Bosnia wasn't led by Belgrade. "The primary responsibility for this violence resides in Belgrade. It has organized and supplied these forces," he said.
United Nations-imposed sanctions, Mr. Micunovic says, hurt the populace more than the regime of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. If prolonged, they could have a "devastating effect" with unintended consequences: "Dissatisfaction might get out of control. It's conceivable Milosevic could be replaced by something worse."
In his meeting with Mr. Eagleburger, Mr. Micunovic pressed for a peace conference on Bosnia-Herzegovina that would include its warring ethnic groups and representatives of Serbia and Croatia. The aim, he said, should be a federation or confederation, with autonomy for Croat- and Serb-dominated areas.
With rising domestic discontent and growing opposition even among Mr. Milosevic's fellow Socialists in parliament, the Serbian president is "politically dead" and won't remain in power at year's end, Mr. Micunovic claimed.
The Bush administration is far less confident.
"As long as he controls the army -- or the army controls him -- he'll stay in power," the State Department official said.