A US Envoy Learns How To Dance With Warlords

US Ambassador Galbraith assesses his mission after two-year stint

BY some measures his achievements might seem limited, but by the tortured standards of diplomacy in the former Yugoslavia, US Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith may be an example that tangible results can be achieved in the Balkan political labyrinth.

Mr. Galbraith arrived here nearly two years ago as the first United States ambassador to Croatia. He has gained a reputation as a tough, credible, and crucial player in Western efforts to avoid a resumption of a bitter 1991 war between Croats and Serbs.

Seated in an office decorated with photos of himself with various dignitaries, Galbraith says he has learned that consistency and pressure achieves results.

''What works diplomatically is to be extremely direct, and I would even say blunt,'' Galbraith says. ''In some other diplomatic circumstances, great subtlety is needed, but that's certainly not the case here.''

Galbraith now faces one of his most difficult challenges. Fresh from recently helping persuade Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to back down from his threat to expel all United Nations peacekeepers from Croatia by July 1, Galbraith is under pressure to make substantial progress in reintegrating rebel Serb territories back into Croatia within the next six months.

If he fails, Croatian political observers predict that President Tudjman will be under extreme domestic political pressure to take back the Serb-held areas by force. A bitter war between the former Yugoslavia's two most powerful countries -- Croatia and Serbia -- could then ensue. ''[We have] a window of opportunity,'' Galbraith says. ''The danger of war has been deferred, but it will simply be a deferral unless we can capitalize on [this].''

The son of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, the ambassador chooses his words carefully and has the look of a disheveled professor at times. A political appointee, Galbraith makes a point of crediting the Clinton administration for successes he has had here.

Fellow diplomats praise Galbraith for being tireless and brimming with new ideas in a region that has become infamous for chewing up good intentions and spitting out seasoned Western diplomats. Galbraith's crucial role in keeping the UN in Croatia this year and convincing Croatia to halt Croat-Muslim fighting in Bosnia last year are undisputed.

But critics complain that while the resulting US-backed Muslim-Croat federation ended fighting, joint governmental and military structures formed to counter Serb military strength have not been implemented.

Croatia is still being allowed to import weapons in violation of a UN arms embargo, they say, but is failing to turn over large amounts of weapons to land-locked Muslim forces.

Some Croatian dissidents also complain that Galbraith has not brought all of the pressure he could on Tudjman to reduce his iron-grip on Croatia's government and media. ''Tudjman is allowed to get away with some things,'' complains one Croatian dissident. ''As long as he doesn't start the fighting again.''

But Galbraith argues that he has been relentless in his criticism of the Croatian government, and the US has done no less than its allies in enforcing the UN arms embargo there.

Galbraith has publicly stated that war crimes were committed by Croats fighting in Bosnia, that Croatia could not quickly take back all of rebel-Serb held territory by force, and that ongoing discrimination against Serbs must end.

''We have probably been more vocal than any other country on these points,'' Galbraith says.

A regular guest on Croatian television programs and frequently interviewed in Croatian newspapers, Galbraith has become a popular figure here. A US government poll taken last June found that 26 percent of the Croatian public had a very favorable and 56 percent a somewhat favorable impression of Galbraith.

A Croatian women's magazine even produced a two-page spread on women he has dated and declared Galbraith, who is divorced and has a teenage son, one of Zagreb's most desirable bachelors.

The ambassador says that he sometimes has been applauded by Croatian crowds when he enters movie theaters and restaurants.

Observers here say whether Galbraith can broker a long-term settlement between Croatia and rebel Serbs may be the true test of his success. The ambassador, who bristles at the suggestion that the problems of the former Yugoslavia are unsolvable, says success is possible and giving up inexcusable.

''The ultimate formula for inaction is to dismiss this as centuries of ethnic hatred, which needless to say is untrue, not historically based, and fails to take into account what's at stake,'' Galbraith says.

''We've got to keep trying because the alternative is invariably worse.''

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