US Choice in Bosnia Will Sway Peace

Decision due Feb. 15 on who rules a much-coveted town; US troops may be at risk

The guns in Bosnia have been silent for more than a year. But leaders of Bosnia's two entities - the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serb republic - are still bitterly divided over which side should get the northeastern Bosnian city of Brcko.

The dispute is explosive, and American troops - thousands of whom are based in the city - could be caught in the middle.

A decision on the city's future is due Feb. 15. Leaders of both sides warn they'll go to war if they are not awarded the city.

A look at a map explains in part why Brcko is so hotly contested. With a port on the river Sava connecting it to Central Europe, and its location - at the geographic intersection of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia - Brcko is considered too strategically important for either faction to give up, even for the sake of peace.

"Brcko is a small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it is a city that will determine the destiny of many cities in Europe," warned Bosnian Federation Vice President Ejup Ganic recently.

Officials close to the negotiations revealed this month that the United States is leaning toward awarding Brcko to the Bosnian Serbs. But the office of the US assistant secretary of state for europe, John Kornblum, denies reports that he recommended Brcko go to the Bosnian Serbs.

Balkan analysts reason the US, with thousands of troops in the area, reckons that not awarding Brcko to the Serbs could lead to a war US troops could be caught in. "It's the our-boys-on-the-ground argument," explains Dejan Anastasijevic, analyst at the Belgrade-based news weekly Vreme. "If Brcko were assigned to the Muslims, the Serbs have already threatened they would fight against them, and American troops would be in the cross-fire."

A troubled past

The future of Brcko is further complicated by its wartime ethnic reengineering. Before the war, Brcko was majority Muslim. After it fell to the Bosnian Serbs in 1992, the town's Muslim and Croatian citizens were driven out or killed.

Their houses have since been filled by some 30,000 Serb refugees fleeing their own tragedies - the transfer of the Sarajevo suburbs to Muslim-Croat control in 1996, and the fall of the Krajina to Croatian forces in 1995.

Another large wave of Serb refugees is expected after the United Nations turns the Eastern Slavonian city of Vukovar over to Croatia later this year.

Making their case

Leaders of the Muslim-Croat Federation argue Brcko should go to them, because to do otherwise would reward the Serbs for the ethnic cleansing they carried out during the war and prevent some 50,000 Muslim and Croatian refugees from being able to return to their homes in Brcko.

It would also deprive the Federation access to Brcko's port and the Zagreb-Belgrade highway, which is crucial for trade. They say they guarantee all former residents of Brcko - including Serbs - would be able to live in Brcko under their rule.

Bosnian Serb leaders make no such guarantees for the city's ethnically cleansed Muslims and Croats. They argue that Brcko is the key geographic point linking the western and southern swaths of the 49 percent of Bosnian territory they were awarded under the 1995 US-brokered Dayton peace accords, which stopped the fighting. Depriving them of Brcko, they say, would destroy the Dayton map.

"We would go to war over Brcko," says Momcilo Krajisnik, the Serb member of the three-man Bosnian presidency.

Even former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who has twice been indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague apparently broke his pledge of public silence to comment on Brcko. He was quoted in a Greek paper on Sunday saying Serbs would go to war if Brcko isn't "solved." After US officials condemned Mr. Karadzic for speaking out, however, Bosnian Serb officials denied that Karadzic even gave the interview.

A US quandary

Analysts believe US officials take Bosnian Serb threats seriously. But they argue that awarding Brcko to the Serbs for the sake of short-term peace could jeopardize long-term stability in the region.

If Brcko were awarded to the Muslim-Croat Federation, Bosnian Serbs might lose faith in the Dayton peace deal, strengthening hard-liners and potentially causing tens of thousands of refugees from western Bosnian Serb republic to flee, writes the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent London-based monitor in a report.

But ICG goes on to suggest that if Brcko were awarded to the Bosnian Serbs, heightened tension and brinkmanship could result in the short term, and renewed armed conflict in the long term.

Sources believe the US plans to put Brcko under three years of international rule, after which it would go to the Serbs. By then, US troops will be gone, and the Muslim-Croat Federation will be strengthened by a $500-million, US-backed program to train and equip its Army. After the departure of the US-led NATO troops, analysts reason, the Muslim-Croat Federation would be free to fight for control of Bosnian Serb territory on its own.

"The Muslims feel Brcko will be theirs sooner or later, as soon as American troops are out of the area," reasons Mr. Anastasijevic. "This is buying them some time. In the meantime, they think a lot can happen. The present [hard-line Bosnian Serb] leadership might be replaced."

ICG argues a better scenario would be to award Brcko to the common institutions of Bosnia - in essence, to both sides. Doing so would allow refugees to return, give both sides access to the highway and the Brcko port, and strengthen the idea of a united Bosnia Herzegovina itself.

"You cannot split Brcko in two," concurs European envoy Michael Steiner. "Or it cannot survive."

ICG proposes that Brcko be turned into a demilitarized, free-trade zone. Drawing on its location at the crossroads of three nations, a tax-free Brcko could serve as a natural market center for the Balkans.

The ICG solution is in part inspired by a highly successful market called Arizona set up by US troops in the demilitarized Zone of Separation in Brcko, where traders from all sides gather to hawk wares. The idea has a certain American appeal, suggesting how free markets can quell ethnic tensions, forgotten in the pursuit of increased profit margins.

"With time, the profit motive will make in-roads into the exclusive nationalist agenda which has caused widespread destruction and impoverishment," writes ICG. "The message from Brcko should be loud and clear - cooperation and reintegration pay off."

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