BELGRADE — Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's continuing reluctance to engineer the handover of Bosnian Serb war criminals is causing confusion among US officials, who in return are sending mixed signals back to the Serb leader. And Mr. Milosevic has taken the contradictory US signals as a green light to continue to thwart the Dayton peace agreement for the former Yugoslavia.
When Milosevic signed the peace pact in Dayton nearly six months ago, he promised to ensure that Bosnian Serb leaders indicted by the UN would face trial. He has so far reneged on those promises, making American officials worried that the war-crimes element of Dayton - which they see as crucial to lasting peace - may be forgotten.
Today the Bosnian Serb chiefs - "'president" Radovan Karadzic and army head Gen. Ratko Mladic, who are both twice indicted for crimes against humanity - are still at large, still rule, and are obstructing the peace process. American efforts to remove them have hinged on the promises of Milosevic, a strategy that some diplomats and Serb analysts say is folly.
Already the Serbian president's waffling appears to have undermined US resolve to bring Bosnian Serb leaders to justice. The US last week backed down from demands that Mr. Karadzic be handed over to the UN War Crimes Tribunal, and said elections in Bosnia due in September could go ahead if, "at a minimum," he kept out of the public eye.
The policy shift was due to inability of the West to influence Milosevic. Hanging in the balance is the timely withdrawal of some 18,000 American troops in Bosnia. This withdrawal is partly contingent on the success of the peace plan. Although the troops are to withdraw at the end of the year, Karadzic's continued presence - and hard-line anti-peace policy - has caused the entire Dayton time line to slip.
American officials admit that freedom of movement and the return of refugees to their homes - both promised by Dayton - are now blocked or far behind schedule. But the overriding imperative is the US presidential election: Any attempt to arrest Karadzic might result in military casualties and damage President Clinton's reelection campaign.
Recognizing that only diplomatic means remain, Milosevic has made promise after promise to senior diplomats. The latest came on Thursday when the US envoy to the Balkans, John Kornblum, was "assured" by Milosevic here that he would "demonstrate" that Karadzic had given up power.
But at a summit between Balkan leaders in Geneva on Sunday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher dismissed Milosevic's assurances and threatened to reimpose sanctions on Serbia if he refuses to cooperate.
"I told him that this just wasn't enough. We need to see real action, real movement," Mr. Christopher said. "By real movement we mean the removal of indicted war criminals from office."
But only hours before, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the US would be "unwise" to insist upon Karadzic's resignation as a precondition for Bosnian elections. The mixed signals were plain to Milosevic, who diplomats say expects that Karadzic may be let off the hook.
Bosnian Serb officials were defiant on Sunday in their self-styled capital of Pale, claiming that there had been no change at all in Karadzic's status and that Milosevic's promise to provide proof of their leader's removal was "wishful thinking."
Milosevic has domestic reasons for delay, including the popularity of the Bosnian Serb leaders. Most Serbs believe their ethnic brothers in Bosnia carried ethnic "cleansing" too far during the war, but support for the Bosnian Serb leaders.
But Milosevic's inaction on war criminals is no surprise to Serb analysts here. Three indicted Serbs here are also still at large, including one colonel still serving in Milosevic's Army.
"He will protest, he will bargain, he will procrastinate, he will produce little bits of paper, and say that he is afraid of the reaction - but it is all a bluff," said Milos Vasic, a founder of Vreme, one of the few independent magazines in Belgrade. "He is so good at this art and will never make a decision until he has to."
Serbs say that they are amazed that the US has staked so much of Bosnia's peace process on a man that even they have come to distrust. They point to recent examples of "betrayal" of fellow Serbs by their leader that should serve as a warning to US officials:
*Yielding to outside pressure, Milosevic withdrew support of the Bosnian Serbs in August 1994. Though Serbs controlled 70 percent of Bosnia, the dream of Greater Serbia evaporated.
*Milosevic did nothing to prevent the Croatian Army from "cleansing" the Krajina region of more than 150,000 Serbs in August last year, despite previous promises that the Serb Army would come to their rescue.
*Bosnian Serbs felt "sold" again by Milosevic last fall, who negotiated in Dayton on their behalf. He agreed they would settle for 49 percent of Bosnian territory, and that they would give up Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo.
"He betrayed Serbs time and again when it suited his needs - we don't trust him," said a Serb analyst who asked not to be named. "Will the US be the last to learn this same lesson?"