The Achilles' Heel of Bosnian Peace: Brcko

To close the deal at Dayton, Bosnia's most vital strategic dispute was papered over.

This is the contest for Brcko - the geographic choke point dividing the territory of Bosnian Serbs. The stand-off is now coming back on stage. Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic recently announced that Brcko's security is a condition of his resignation from office. The Dayton agreement dictates that Brcko's status must be settled by "binding arbitration" - no later than Dec. 14. State Department officials want it dispatched soon, to allow the dust to settle before NATO departs. This may be wishful thinking.

Republika Srpska has named as its arbiter a relative hard-liner, Vitomar Popovic, a Banja Luka law professor who served as deputy premier under Mr. Karadzic. The Muslim-Croat Federation has named Bosnian constitutional court judge Cazim Sadikovic. If they don't agree on a third name by July 14, the choice of the panel's head will fall to the president of the International Court of Justice, Mohammed Bedjaoui, an Algerian jurist, who is presiding over the genocide case brought by Bosnia against Serbia.

"Binding arbitration" is a guarded term in Bosnia, where only firepower is truly binding. Some experienced negotiators doubt that arbitration can succeed in these circumstances. In military terms, Brcko is the single most important area in all of Bosnia. Placing it under the governance of the Republika Srpska or the Muslim-Croat Federation is a question of military and political delicacy. Abstract principles of equity and reparation don't stop fighting.

The Sava River town, on Bosnia's northern border with Croatia, was controlled by the Serbs at the time of the cease-fire. American GIs are presently keeping a lid on things, from their encampment in the middle of a former battlefield.

The Muslims say they need Brcko for access to the Sava River, to ship Tuzla's industrial output to the Danube and Black Sea. Croatia has now agreed to open the Adriatic port at Ploce to use by the Muslim-Croat Federation, providing an alternative route. Under Dayton, free trade through Brcko should not depend on who governs the town, since customs duties are the exclusive power of the Bosnian national government. Still, freedom of movement may continue to be a problem, and local governments control the police.

The Muslims also argue that they enjoyed a plurality before fierce fighting and ethnic cleansing changed the demographics. In the 1991 census, Brcko county was 44 percent Muslim, 25 percent Croat, 21 percent Serb, and 9 percent "other" (largely Serbs). Muslim president Alija Izetbegovic was reportedly born in Brcko. Even now, thousands of former Muslim residents are dug in at "Rahic Brcko," an enclave south of the old town.

Bosnian Serbs, on the other hand, point to the wartime and postwar events that have stranded the large Serb population in western Bosnia - making Brcko uniquely important for psychological confidence and as a defensible security corridor (called the Posavina corridor, after the surrounding region) to these isolated territories. Serbs no longer live across the border in any number. Croatia's 1995 offensive in the Krajina brought its own ethnic cleansing, forcing out 200,000 Krajina Serbs. Few Serbs are expected to risk remaining in Eastern Slavonia after that area is turned over to full Croatian control. Brcko is the jugular of Bosnian Serb territory.

There are no very good answers. If Brcko is to be given outright to the Muslim-Croat Federation, the Serbs will need a defensible security corridor farther to the south, cutting Brcko off from the rest of the Federation and reopening the overall territorial settlement. In Bosnia's mountainous terrain, map-drawers would have to go as far south as Tuzla to anchor another corridor. A "Berlin" solution for Brcko, dividing the city into sectors that reflect its original population, doesn't fit any obvious design for a security corridor.

Going north of the Sava River for a security corridor was suggested by Croatian president Franco Tudjman in 1993. But the offer hasn't been renewed, and in the face of Serb flight from Eastern Slavonia, is not as attractive. A "flyover" was suggested in early peace negotiations - a highway bridge and two nonintersecting roads that would permit Serbs to cross from east to west, while allowing Muslims north-south access to the Sava. But if fighting ever recurs, a bridge is vulnerable.

A United Nations official has floated the idea of internationalizing Brcko, with a multilateral force to remain indefinitely. But Dayton arbitrators can't order the current peace implementation force to stay. In any event, installing an international force doesn't settle the rules of the road. They could guarantee Muslim access to the port. The UN's newly robust presence in Eastern Slavonia - with attack helicopters, tanks, and artillery - lends a new credibility to area peacekeepers. But Serbs will want to know whether they have a guaranteed right of passage for their armed forces through the city in the event of new conflict. Serbs are unlikely to agree to any solution that forbids them from fortifying the town against attack from the south. This is a region where both sides will continue to hedge against resumption of the war.

When antagonists need a face-saving device for compromise, giving an issue to arbiters may work. But there is little or no precedent for using arbitration to resolve matters of vital security interest such as the Brcko, or Posavina, corridor. There should be no compromise on Karadzic's immediate resignation from office. But after he is gone, one hopes that statesmen on all sides can settle Brcko the old-fashioned way - with hard-nosed political negotiation.

*Ruth Wedgwood is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of law at Yale University.

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