On March 15, a decision is due by the international community's representative on the future of the disputed Bosnian town of Brcko. It could be a turning point for that country's future and could make the difference between a united Bosnia and a dismembered one.
Brcko sits strategically astride what has become known as the "corridor" linking the two parts of the Bosnian Serb entity. Before the war, Serbs comprised 20 percent of the town's 87,000 inhabitants. But Serb militias and the Yugoslav Army seized control in 1992, conducting an ethnic cleansing drive in which the Department of State estimates 3,000 non-Serbs were murdered.
The Bosnian Serbs have held the ethnically cleansed town ever since. The 1995 Dayton accords, which ended the fighting in Bosnia, postponed the decision on who would control Brcko by requiring the parties to submit to binding arbitration. Pending a final disposition, a temporary Bosnian Serb administration has governed the city.
The Bosnian government seeks the return of Brcko, arguing that the town is vital because, as a port on the Sava River, it provides badly needed access to the outside world. It further argues that failure to reverse the town's seizure by force would mean rewarding ethnic cleansing.
The Bosnian Serbs claim that Brcko should be theirs, because they are entitled to a secure, Serb-only link between the two parts of Bosnia over which they exert territorial control: Banja Luka and eastern Bosnia.
Yet, if the Bosnian Serbs are committed to living in a united Bosnia, as they agreed in writing, then control of Brcko shouldn't matter. The Bosnian Serbs need the Brcko link only if they plan to break away from Bosnia.
Tellingly, some foreign policymakers have hinted that the more pragmatic, albeit still nationalistic, Bosnian Serb officials installed recently - led by Biljana Plavsic and Milorad Dodik - should be encouraged and rewarded by concessions such as the disputed town of Brcko. As a way to exert pressure on the pending decision, Mr. Dodik and Mr. Plavsic have taken the cue, warning that failure to grant Brcko to the Serbs could undermine their credibility in favor of more radical rivals.
Yet, even apart from the moral aspect, it makes little sense to relinquish such a crucial lever over the Serbs' good behavior. Even if Plavsic and Dodik were to fall (and that's unlikely), whoever replaced them would not be immune to geography. Without Brcko, the Bosnian Serbs would not control a continuous area, and therefor would be compelled by geography to cooperate with the rest of Bosnia and the international community in implementing the Dayton accords and in promoting stability and security in order to keep their road and air communications open.
With Brcko in their sole possession, on the other hand, the Bosnian Serb authorities can be expected to flout the rest of Bosnia and the international community and work toward partition.
In short, if the Bosnian Serbs are awarded Brcko, a united Bosnia becomes highly unlikely; if not, a united Bosnia is at least possible. If the goal of the United States is still a united and stable Bosnia, there is little that would undercut that objective as completely as allotting Brcko to the Serbs.
THE international community should, instead, establish a transitional NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) mandate over the city as an interim solution. The SFOR authority would work to reestablish the city's original ethnic balance by securing the return of refugees and freedom of movement. And once there is a functioning and unified Bosnian government, control over Brcko could be formally relinquished to the joint central government authorities.
This not only would pave the way for a smooth transition, but it also would make meaningless protests by more radical Serb elements. Most important, it would give Bosnia the chance for peace it deserves.
* Norman Cigar is a research fellow at the Balkan Institute, and Paul R. WIlliams is senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.