Remember Brcko! Why It's Not Easy to Be Hard in Bosnia

Bosnia was on edge for several months as international arbitrators considered the future of Brcko. On Feb. 15 the decision finally arrived: The strategically located town in northeastern Bosnia remains under Serb control for one year while original inhabitants are encouraged to return. At first glance, the decision is reasonable; scratch the surface, however, and the familiar indecisiveness becomes apparent.

Brcko, like many other Bosnian towns, had its ethnic composition forcibly altered during the war. Once predominantly Muslim and Croat, the town is now controlled and populated by Bosnian Serbs. If Brcko's story is not unusual, its location is. It lies along the thin corridor connecting Bosnia's two Serb-controlled areas. The arbitration was tense, and Serb republic officials intimated that violence might greet an unfavorable decision.

Seeking an easy answer, the international community again ratified the status quo. The planned increase in unarmed monitors is symbolic and will be of little use to those trying to return. Recent experience gives no reason to believe that, absent coercion, Serb administrators will let the displaced come back.

If the international community had mustered the courage, it could have made one of two hard decisions.

First, it could have used Brcko as a lever to promote a unified Bosnia by putting the town under trusteeship backed by an enhanced military presence. The International Crisis Group, which monitors implementation of the Dayton accords, suggested this as a means of revitalizing the peace agreement. But the energy for that level of engagement is absent. The frustration of the European Union's administration of Mostar likely soured decisionmakers on trusteeship.

An equally hard decision, and one perhaps more consistent with existing political will, would have been to hand over Brcko to the Muslim-Croat Federation, which has the strongest claim to its administration. This imperfect solution might have led to an exodus of current Serb residents. It also might have sparked armed confrontations between NATO and Serb forces. The question, however, is whether it is better for the needed transition to occur now, with substantial NATO forces in the country, or for the federation to fight for the town later when these troops have departed and conflict over Brcko could spread to other areas.

The aversion to hard decisions evidenced in Brcko is consistent with a broader pattern. Election officials yielded to an artificial and unrealistic timetable in September and held a deeply flawed national vote that strengthened hard-liners throughout Bosnia. NATO's political leadership, meanwhile, has been consistently unwilling to take the hard decision to arrest indicted war criminals. The past few months alone have seen several humiliating incidents in which NATO troops encountered war criminals but had to pretend they did not.

The reason for this pattern is clear: The major troop-contributing states, and the United States in particular, are unwilling to risk confrontation on any issues but those directly linked to enforcing Dayton's military provisions. The determination behind the 1995 NATO bombing campaign and the subsequent negotiation of the Dayton agreement has all but disappeared. The refrain that it is the responsibility of the Bosnian parties to make Dayton work falls flat. The agreement was the product of coercion; it should come as no surprise that coercion is necessary in its implementation.

But exiting rather than implementing has become the NATO force's overriding mission. From this narrow perspective, the Brcko decision was a marked success. In the face of heightened security, the parties accepted it calmly. But confrontation has been delayed, not avoided.

Bosnia's division is hardening, with refugees still unable to return and war criminals in positions of influence. Compromises like that over Brcko may enable NATO to depart having made few waves, but they will leave behind a country set for another storm. A lasting peace cannot be built on the back of easy answers.

* David L. Bosco, who served in Bosnia as head of the American Refugee Committee's Sarajevo office, is an analyst with the Washington- and Geneva-based Refugee Policy Group.

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