Bosnia Serbs Feel West's Cold Shoulder

International community turns to city of Banja Luka to find an alternative to hard-liners in Pale led by Karadzic

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Unable to break the nationalist grip of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic any other way, Western officials are trying to isolate him by shifting their focus from his tiny mountain base of Pale to the Serbs' largest city, Banja Luka.

Indicted twice by the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague for genocide and crimes against humanity, Mr. Karadzic is seen here as the chief obstacle to the success of the Dayton peace accords.

Karadzic and other hard-line Serb leaders were meant to be marginalized by the peace process. Instead, they have clung to power, still preaching their wartime ideology of ethnic separation and blocking all moves to reunify Bosnia.

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Because Karadzic is an indicted war criminal, Western officials have no direct contact with him. But by all accounts, the self-appointed "president" of the Republika Srpska, as Bosnian Serb territory is called, is still firmly in control.

Despairing of ever persuading this Pale leadership of accepting the spirit of the peace accord, the United Nations, diplomats, and civilian and military officials who are charged with implementing the accord have turned to the city of Banja Luka in search of more moderate Serb leaders.

"We can't shoot Karadzic, so we've got to build up opposition to him where we can," said one senior European diplomat who plans to travel regularly to Banja Luka. "The atmosphere there is so much more open than in Pale, where everybody feels that Karadzic is listening over their shoulder."

Serb territory is divided into two halves linked by a narrow corridor. Pale is a small ski village nestled in the hills of eastern Bosnia outside Sarajevo and is Mr. Karadzic's self-declared capital. But some Serbs in Banja Luka, an industrial city in the west, are now questioning Karadzic's leadership.

'Heart of Darkness'

Once referred to by UN spokesmen as the "Heart of Darkness" for the brutal efficiency of the "ethnic cleansing" campaigns against Muslims in the area, Banja Luka is now being put forward by Western officials as the "reasonable" alternative to Pale.

Until now, visiting peace mediators made regular pilgrimages to Pale to try to convince Karadzic's leadership to accept their plans. But there is a growing realization, one UN official said, "that this is a waste of time, like banging your head against the wall."

Karadzic forbade Bosnian Serbs from taking part in a donors' conference in Brussels last month, and he has stymied every effort so far to integrate Serb and Muslim-Croat territories. Development projects meant to cross ethnic boundaries, from rebuilding homes to reconnecting telephone lines, are on hold.

Leading the charge to Banja Luka has been Carl Bildt, the Swedish diplomat whose office is responsible for the civilian side of the peace plan.

Making a strong political statement, he opened an office in Banja Luka and stayed there throughout last week, holding high-profile meetings with Serb authorities.

Michael Steiner, his deputy in Sarajevo, said the plan to marginalize Pale is deliberate.

"Dayton envisions a unified Bosnia, but Pale came to power on the ticket of ethnic separation," Mr. Steiner said. "It is difficult for them to change their war aims, because people will ask 'Why did we fight?' So we are blocked while this leadership is there."

Seeking cooperative Serbs

The shift to Banja Luka also aims to "change the perception that the West hates [the Serbs], and that it is willing to cooperate with them," he said.

Military compliance has been "easy," Steiner said, because the withdrawal from front lines already matched the power balance on the ground. But the civilian aspects - such as freedom of movement, the safe return of refugees, and the success of upcoming elections - can all unravel the peace.

The new focus on Banja Luka is taking advantage of Serb political divisions that have existed throughout the war. Suspicions about Karadzic's leadership were confirmed last autumn, when a Muslim-Croat advance came within striking distance of the city.

In Banja Luka, it is military chief Ratko Mladic - also twice indicted for war crimes - who is seen as the hero who could have secured victory if it weren't for Karadzic's political bungling.

A recent poll of Serbs commissioned by the US Information Agency reflects the gap: Though the popularity of both men increased in the last year, Karadzic had a 68 percent favorable rating, compared with 93 percent for General Mladic.

Another signal has come from British peace forces in Bosnia, which recently transferred their headquarters to Banja Luka. Karadzic was reportedly so furious that he called for an inquiry to find out who gave "permission" for the move.

'Snatching' is out

Soldiers of the American-led NATO force are supposed to arrest any indicted war criminal that they come across. But fearing casualties - and a violent Serb reaction if they capture Karadzic - NATO commanders have ruled out a "snatch" operation.

That reluctance has angered some senior Western officials.

"We are all for freedom of movement, but the extent to which Karadzic exercises this right, with so many armed guards, is astonishing," said one. "If peace forces want to leave here and have an end to their mission, they must see that the civilian implementation works, and it won't with these guys."

As part of the Dayton accord, Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic was to ensure that Karadzic's power was curtailed. As an indicted war criminal, Karadzic is not allowed to take part in country-wide elections due by mid-September. But last week he told US News and World Report that he would run for office "to seek a new legitimacy."

The list of problems for the Bosnian Serbs is long: They are outnumbered 3 to 1 by Muslims and Croats, and most are worse off than a year ago.

There are few cities in the Bosnian Serb territory, the army is demoralized, and their former enemies are getting new weapons and training from the West.

"Economically, morally, it is a shambles," said a Western diplomat. "So if Karadzic just disappeared to a cabin, we would all be happy. This is not Nuremburg [at which defeated World War II commanders were tried for war crimes]. We just want [the peace accord] to work."

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