Bosnia's Odd 'Magic Kingdom'


To some NATO peacekeeping troops, this Alpine village is known as "the Magic Kingdom."

Indeed, viewed from afar this sweep of cloud-wreathed peaks and majestic forests seems to enfold Pale in a fairy-tale-like aura. But the sobriquet refers not to the scenery. It is a sarcastic dig at the bleak reality of the crumbling roads, idle factories, destitute refugees, and omnipresent warlordism that lie beneath the vista.

Once an obscure way station en route to the ski slopes that played host to the 1984 Winter Olympics, Pale has become synonymous around the world with Bosnian Serb extremism.

It was from Pale - just east of Sarajevo - that Radovan Karadzic and his lieutenants presided over the brutal 43-month campaign for a pure Serb state that ended when NATO air strikes compelled them to accept the 1995 plan brokered in Dayton, Ohio, for reconciliation with Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslims and Croats.

Pale is now effectively a prison for Mr. Karadzic, with NATO units posted on its fringes with orders to arrest him on war-crimes charges should he stray too far from his heavily guarded home. Sporadic overflights in the depths of night by low-flying NATO helicopters equipped with powerful search lights keep his nerves - and those of Pale's other residents - ajangle.

Karadzic's wartime offices in the drab Hotel Panorama are now occupied by his closest associates. It is from this hillside hostelry that they have been fighting since July to defend their political power and smuggling rackets against a former colleague, Biljana Plavsic. Her crusade for change is being backed by the United States and its allies as the best chance for keeping Bosnia at peace.

Washington's tolerance of Pale appears to have reached an end following Aug. 28 attacks by Bosnian Serb mobs on American troops on the northern town of Brcko. NATO authorized its Stabilization Force (SFOR) to close the pro-Karadzic media Pale used to incite the unrest. US special envoy Robert Gelbard ended a weekend visit to the village by warning that the consequences of the hard-liners persistent refusal to abide by the Dayton accords "would be the most serious imaginable."

But the Pale faction remains defiant. "We don't accept threats," asserts Momcilo Krajisnik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia's multiethnic federal presidency and the public face of hard-line opposition to Mrs. Plavsic, the US-supported president of the Serb republic, the half of Bosnia awarded to Bosnian Serbs by the Dayton agreements.

Increasingly, it appears that Mr. Krajisnik is supplanting Karadzic as the real power in Pale.

Portraits of a big-haired Karadzic still adorn walls and shop windows throughout the village, and he retains the stature of a hero. But to Mr. Krajisnik answer the Pale studios of state-run radio and television, the Serb Republic ministries based in a defunct Pale tractor factory, some senior army commanders, and large numbers of police who look to the village for their scant salaries. He is also alleged to run the cigarette, gasoline, and liquor-smuggling networks that give Pale control over the statelet's war-shattered economy.

By wielding his immense power, Krajisnik could well make good on implicit threats to sabotage municipal elections this month and October polls that Plavsic - and Washington - hope will give her control of the Bosnian Serb parliament. It was her decision to dissolve the legislature that ignited the power struggle.

Many experts believe that even if SFOR arrested Karadzic and sent him to the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, it would have little impact on Pale. Krajisnik and his henchmen, they say, have amassed sufficient might of their own to defeat Plavsic and prevent her from fulfilling her promises to implement the Dayton accords.

"There are a lot of people up there [in Pale] who are profiting from the nonimplementation of Dayton," says a Western diplomat based in Sarajevo.

The construction of villas in Pale and the roar of sleek German luxury cars on its roads attest to the ill-gained fortunes that the hard-liners can access to counter Plavsic's efforts to extend her authority beyond her SFOR-protected stronghold of Banja Luka.

The affluence, however, does not extend to the majority of Pale's residents. Many are refugees from Sarajevo. They spend their days in idleness, dependent on handouts, remittances from overseas, or the sale of personal belongings in a makeshift market in a muddy field. Many have been brainwashed so thoroughly by the Krajisnic-controlled media that they believe the women in predominantly-Muslim Sarajevo must wear Islamic full-length chadors when they leave their homes.

Unlike the resentment for the hard-liners that Plavsic has successfully tapped in Banja Luka, any expressions of discontent in Pale are suppressed by fears of reprisals by thugs or police loyal to the ruling clique. "If they knew I was talking to you, they would come for me tomorrow," one resident told a recent visitor.

A nondescript building on the pot-holed main street represents another key lever of power wielded by the hard-liners. It houses the headquarters of state-run television and radio, although rebellious employees loyal to Plavsic have commandeered the transmitters around Banja Luka, large areas of the statelet are still bombarded by Pale's crude propaganda.

With many Bosnian Serbs depending exclusively on television and radio for their information, control of transmitters and other broadcasting equipment has assumed primary importance for the rival Bosnian Serb camps.

Despite NATO's threats to close down the Pale-based media, Western diplomats privately express skepticism that such a plan could succeed. They point out that Pale's leaders could still turn to local radio stations run by their adherents to air their diatribes. Backers of Karadzic offered Sept. 2 to temper a vicious media campaign against foreign organizations in Bosnia if NATO troops hand a transmitter back to Bosnian Serb television, according to the Associated Press.

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