WASHINGTON -- In a breakthrough toward ending Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II, the former Yugoslavia's three warring sides agreed yesterday on a division of Bosnia that grants Bosnia's Serbs a largely self-governing state of their own.
The agreement announced in Geneva required all sides to give up some loudly professed principles. Muslims, Croats and Serbs agreed to split Bosnia along ethnic lines, with a Muslim-Croat federation getting 51 percent, and a Serbian republic getting 49 percent, as well as its own name.
President Clinton welcomed the development, which came barely a week after NATO began bombing Bosnian Serb positions, and a so-far unsuccessful attempt to force the Serbs to end their siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.
"Today's successful meeting in Geneva is an important milestone on the road to peace in the former Yugoslavia," Mr. Clinton said in a statement. But he added: "Much remains to be done in translating these principles into a final peace agreement.
"All the parties will need to display the same flexibility and statesmanship that made today's agreement possible if we are to turn away from war and achieve our common goal of a durable peace in the Balkans."
The nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina would keep its international borders and a single seat at the United Nations. But the Muslim and Serbian halves would each have most of the trappings of a state, including armies. Serbs in Bosnia would be able to form political links with Serbia, partially fulfilling their dream of a Greater Serbian federation.
The agreement, reached by the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, followed a month of shuttling by U.S. and European negotiators and does not include a cease-fire. And Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned that the bombing would continue until Serbs complied with United Nations demands.
"Today's agreement is just a first step, and many difficult issues remain to be resolved over the future days and weeks," Mr. Christopher said.
The real significance of this new diplomacy may be the very fact that representatives of peoples that have been hostile for centuries were able to shed some of their most cherished principles.
For Bosnia's Muslims, it meant surrendering the idea of a multiethnic state with a single government, and accepting the existence of what the agreement calls the "Republic of Serbska." For Serbia, whose foreign minister also represented the Bosnian Serbs, it meant accepting the existence of a country called Bosnia.
"It's a big step in that no progress has been made in the past without face-to-face talks," said Susan L. Woodward, a Balkans expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. But she added, "No one is optimistic that it will move fast."
The agreement calls for each Bosnian entity to keep its own constitution, and for people who have been forced from their homes to either be allowed to return or be awarded compensation.
It says each part of Bosnia will commit itself to hold elections, to adopt international human rights standards, to allow freedom of movement and to settle disputes through binding arbitration.
One of the few tasks the two entities would share would be transportation and the upkeep of national monuments.
Both the NATO bombing and the strenuous diplomacy marked a new U.S. leadership role, spurred partly by congressional pressure, to try to end a conflict that has produced the worst atrocities seen in Europe in more than a generation.
"If there's any slack at all on the American side, it's over," Ms. Woodward said.
But territory -- the toughest issue -- is still to be negotiated. The division of Bosnia has been agreed to only in theory. It will require Bosnia's Serbs to give up a big chunk of the territory they gained through aggression and the "ethnic cleansing" of Muslim and Croatian civilians -- in practice, wholesale killings and forced expulsions.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. assistant secretary of state who brokered the deal, has warned against assuming that the worst is over. Speaking yesterday of the redrawn map and the future cooperative governance of Bosnia, he said: "We should be under no illusions that these will be easy tasks."
And signs abound that none of the warring sides -- Serbs, Muslims or Croats -- is ready to stop fighting.
Despite NATO's open-ended bombing campaign, Bosnian Serbs have yet to withdraw the heavy weapons that have besieged Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, let alone surrender land.
There is also fear that Bosnia's Muslims will use the bombing raids as protective cover to battle hard to regain lost territory. And Croatia continues to make menacing noises about gaining control of a rich, Serbian-inhabited region next to Serbia called Eastern Slavonia. U.S. officials worry that such a move would reignite war.
U.S. officials have so far failed to make even modest progress toward getting Serbia to recognize Croatia's sovereignty over that region.
Further ahead lies the enforcement of an actual settlement, and a military and political headache for Mr. Clinton.
"This could be the hardest part," Mr. Holbrooke acknowledged in Geneva. A NATO-led force made up of tens of thousands of soldiers, including U.S. troops, would be sent in to maintain a cease-fire. Mr. Clinton faces a difficult selling job to get congressional support for what could be an open-ended commitment. Congressional opposition could grow if Serbian heavy weapons threaten the peacekeepers.