West corners Bosnian Serbs

Decisions affecting Serb Republic dismay local leaders, but crisis maybe short term.

As long as the international community remains resolute, Western analysts say, it can effectively contain political chaos in the Serb half of Bosnia - one of the most serious threats yet to the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended the Bosnia war.

Under the Dayton agreement, foreign troops enforce peace in Bosnia, while the Office of the High Representative, an internationally mandated quasi-governmental body, oversees postwar construction and supervises domestic politics. On Friday, High Representative Carlos Westendorp, the Western official who effectively runs Bosnia, sacked the Bosnian Serb Republic's hard-line nationalist president, Nikola Poplasen. Hours later, plans were announced to install a neutral government in Brcko, an important Serb-controlled river port.

The status of Brcko had been the most substantial issue left unresolved at Dayton. The town straddles a crucial land corridor connecting the eastern and western halves of the Serb Republic. Thousands of Muslims and Croats were evicted from the town by Serb nationalists during the Bosnian war.

The two-pronged initiative, which analysts think was pushed by Washington, delivers a blow to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Mr. Poplasen is widely viewed as a protg of Mr. Milosevic, and the neutral designation of Brcko demonstrates that the international community is prepared to override Serb sensibilities.

"It's certainly a dramatic move for the West," says Colin Soloway, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank in Sarajevo. "It knocks Milosevic back on his heels. It's saying: 'You're not going to make trouble for us in Bosnia.' "

At an emergency session of the Bosnian Serb Assembly last weekend, deputies called on Bosnian Serb representatives to withdraw from the common Bosnian institutions established under the Dayton agreement, including the collective presidency and the national parliament, in protest against the Poplasen dismissal and the Brcko announcement.

But Mirza Hajric, an adviser to Bosnia's collective national presidency, rejects comparisons with the events that preceded the outbreak of war in 1992, when Serb representatives withdrew from Bosnia's parliament and collective presidency. "This is a different situation and a different time and a different constitutional framework," he says. "I expect that this will be a short-term crisis."

Jean Franois Laroche, a French business consultant who has been based in Bosnia for five years, says the West's new decisiveness may produce a political improvement over the long term. "Dismissing Poplasen and getting serious about Brcko just means that Bosnia is more and more of a protectorate. There may be some short-term instability.... But we will witness this year a political cleaning up of the situation, followed by an economic improvement, if the international community keeps up the pressure."

Mr. Hajric says he thinks Zivko Radisic, the Serb member and current chairman of the collective presidency, would shortly resume his functions. Mr. Radisic announced that he was suspending his participation in presidency meetings following the Brcko arbitration decision.

Milorad Dodik, the Western-backed acting prime minister of the Serb Republic, was also reported at the beginning of this week to be reconsidering his resignation.

"If Radisic had really wanted to mess things up he'd have resigned," says Mr. Soloway, an analyst. "I think the Serbs are going to back down. They'll huff and puff but in the end they'll accept."

But Soloway thinks there is still no "master plan" on how to bring about faster political and economic recovery in Bosnia.

"What's important is that the international community now follows up, pushes for more refugee returns," says Soloway, noting that priority should be given to allowing Serb refugees in Brcko to return to their homes in the Muslim-Croat Federation, a development that would in turn ease the return of Muslim and Croat refugees to Brcko.

"They need to show Serbs that good things can come from this," he says. "They have to cut taxes in Brcko, reform the business structure, show that it's not just another black hole."

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