Brcko - a lesson for Kosovo peacemakers

Brcko is not a misprint. It is a town in northern Bosnia, a loose end of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement and a cautionary tale for the new peacemakers in Kosovo. When Bosnia was finally apportioned to Croats, Serbs, and Bosniacs, Brcko was set aside. This mainly Bosniac-Muslim place had been ethnically cleansed by the Serbs. It was, however, too hot to handle because both parties made possession a matter of life and death. Brcko controls a passageway three miles wide, the Posavina corridor, the only connection between the divided halves of the ethnic Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska, in the new Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is the Bosniacs' only access to the Sava River, the Danube, and central Europe.

The Dayton agreement handed the problem to a tribunal, which has juggled it ever since. This month the panel must pronounce some Solomonic judgment. Bosniac leaders vow that if Brcko is given to the Serbs they'll resign their offices, bringing progress toward a democratic state to a dead stop. Awarding Brcko to the Bosniacs would send the ethnic Serbs up the wall. NATO's multilateral stabilization force, 32,500 strong, guarantees the peace as long as the heavily armed, no-nonsense troops are there. In Brcko, these are Americans.

The question of sovereignty doesn't arise in Bosnia, as it must in Kosovo. NATO has complete freedom to preserve security. An internationally appointed high representative is charged with building civil institutions and setting standards of a democratic multi-ethnic state. Violence has been reduced to local incidents, but the political picture is not bright. The Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina has a government only on paper. Political power is in the hands of the two ethnic entities that form it: the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina." The whole is an international protectorate with the high representative managing by decree. The incumbent, Carlos Westendorp of Spain, has the power to remove any official who blocks implementation of the Dayton agreement. He can disqualify uncooperative political parties from participating in future elections. He can punish collective malfeasance by withholding international aid. The Republic Srpska now gets practically none because of hindering the return of Muslim and Croat refugees, muzzling political opposition, and refusing to arrest war criminals.

Mr. Westendorp has imposed such essentials of open society as a common currency, non-ethnic license plates, passports for foreign travel, and press freedom. He's working on transforming ethnic goon squads into proper police. War criminals remain a problem.

Bosnia and Kosovo are different. The sovereignty so completely overridden in one is asserted by Serbia in the other. Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic, co-conspirator in Dayton, is now antagonist. But Serb brutality in Kosovo has made the dynamics of ethnic hatred equally strong. Since the western community can't ignore the conflict, its response must be - as in Bosnia - determined and steadfast.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime CBS correspondent, writes on world affairs.

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