Europe’s troubleshooter

Series Title
Series Details 05/10/95, Volume 1, Number 03
Publication Date 05/10/1995
Content Type

Date: 05/10/1995

Carl Bildt would have good reason to be disappointed that the peace accord agreed by warring parties in Bosnia is being called the “Holbrooke plan” after US negotiator Richard Holbrooke, and is not named after him.

But in typical style, the EU mediator insists he is not, stressing that the only thing that matters is that any peace initiatives get results.

The quest for results has driven Bildt throughout his career, from his political endeavours as a student, which eventually led him to the country's premiership, to the tireless travelling between Yugoslavia and European capitals as the Union's troubleshooter in Bosnia. Constantly on the go, he is so busy that even European officials cannot keep track of his moves.

The tall 46-year-old has a boyish appearance which belies his drive and seriousness. A Swedish diplomat who worked with him explains: “Bildt is only interested in one thing - politics. He's a complete political animal. He's one of the most extreme examples I've seen of this in all my years in government.”

Bildt writes his own speeches and rarely delegates other tasks. A speed-reading course has practically eliminated his need for assistants, aides say. The diplomat, describing Bildt reading a 30-page memo in four minutes flat, then going on to discuss the main points, said admiringly: “He doesn't miss a thing.”

Seldom seen without his portable computer, Bildt is a dedicated Internet surfer, and files a weekly open letter on it. One of his Internet pen pals is Bill Clinton. He is close to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and on very good terms with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister John Major have both also praised him effusively.

Fluent in both English and German and with a good command of French, Bildt is said to thrive on international gatherings. Just the man, then, for the shuttle diplomacy required of a peace negotiator.

At the EU summit in Cannes in June, Kohl said he had great faith in Bildt's abilities and knowledge of the region. The right man had been chosen, Kohl said, somebody he trusted more than former mediator Lord David Owen, because Bildt would take an unprejudiced approach rather than concentrating on First World War biases.

Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring welcomed what he said would be a fresh, enthusiastic approach. But Bildt, who took on the “mission impossible” on 9 June, only had pessimistic words about the assignment.

After Chirac praised him and announced that a new rapid reaction force would support him, Bildt's words of caution about the hard road ahead sounded more like despair and quashed Chirac's blustery optimism.

During the furore of activities at the summit on the French Riviera, Bildt asked journalists to imagine the suffering of civilians in Bosnia. “Picture, if you will, the ocean-front here being shelled and pockmarked, people launching grenades on the hotels,” he said. Then, displaying the lack of humour Swedes are famous for, he added earnestly: “Now I'm not advocating that anyone here tries it.”

Even after the warring parties had signed an accord this month and world leaders were talking about the light at end of the tunnel, Bildt was typically cautious. “It may be a beginning, but there's a long way to go,” he said.

Bildt has had his own problems during his four months as mediator, finding himself in contention with the very parties he is trying to bring together. During the Croat offensive on Krajina in early August, Bildt accused Croats and Bosnians of human rights violations against Serb civilians fleeing the area and said the murderers should be tried.

Zagreb declared him persona non grata, demanding to know why he had never accused Serb soldiers of human rights violations against Bosnians in Srebenica.

When Bosnian and Croat officials refused to see Bildt, the Union's aim of becoming the peacemaker in former Yugoslavia received a serious setback. Bosnian officials proceeded to make it clear that they preferred negotiating with American envoys.

Some observers called Bildt's undiplomatic comments a product of Swedish upbringing, which values honesty even if it hurts. But Kohl was understood to be extremely irritated at Bildt's faux pas and afraid that the new mediator, like Owen before him, was becoming too sympathetic to the Serbs.

The other setback was the arrival on the scene of Holbrooke, whose skill at analysing characters and then manipulating them produced deals with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic that Bildt's more diplomatic approach had failed to obtain. Sources close to negotiations said that Holbrooke's presence relegated Bildt to the back seat.

One American diplomat said: “Bildt gives the interviews, we do the negotiating.”

Bildt says he is not disappointed that the Americans are getting the credit for ending the war, as Clinton needs it for his forthcoming presidential campaign.

“Europe doesn't work like that,” he adds. “It's more oriented towards long-term results.”

His remark is typical of a man who knows how to look ahead at the long-run. He started his climb to the top of Swedish politics as a young man.

Bildt, whose great grandfather became Sweden's Prime Minister in 1902, became a party secretary on finishing his studies and was chairman of Sweden's Young Conservatives at the age of 25. His marriage to the daughter of a former Moderate Party leader was not a political move, he has always insisted, but did coincide with the start of his meteoric rise through the party ranks.

Elected to Sweden's parliament, the Riksdag, at the age of 30 in 1979, he took over as leader of the opposition Moderata Samlingspartiet, or Moderate Unity Party, in 1986.

His attack on Sweden's long-ruling Social Democratic machine and the firmly entrenched welfare state brought him the attention of both Kohl and Chirac.

Despite his somewhat dour manner, Bildt has a charm which attracts devoted followers. His personal appeal is often credited for the success of his party. “He's popular,” said one party member. “For so many years the Socialists have been in power and he's the alternative.”

Born into minor aristocracy in the lush, south-western city of Halmstad, a town known as the haven of Sweden's leisure class, Bildt got a bit of a head start.

His native region, facing Denmark and the European continent across the Baltic sea, has a more outward look and continental approach than northern Sweden, where geographical isolation causes its inhabitants to be more self-reliant and inward-looking. Friends say Bildt has always been interested in European and international affairs.

The son and grandson of army officers, Bildt spent his boyhood reading military magazines, playing war games and building model airplanes. He is still an aviation enthusiast and reputedly can recognise planes by their engine sounds.

The author of three books, Bildt said once he wanted to be “the Olof Palme of the right”. Palme, Sweden's long-time Socialist Prime Minister and the UN's mediator in the Iran-Iraq war, became a world-reknowned statesman before his assasination in 1986.

Although he is currently playing a backstage role in the peace process while his American counterpart steals the headlines, even his fiercest critics concede Bildt has put Sweden firmly on the diplomatic map. He could yet end up with a place in the history books as a key player in rebuilding the former Yugoslavia.

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