Brcko Torn In Two

Signalling a clear commitment to the future integrity of Bosnia, the international community has punished Republika Srpska over its obstruction of the Dayton implementation

Brcko Torn In Two

Signalling a clear commitment to the future integrity of Bosnia, the international community has punished Republika Srpska over its obstruction of the Dayton implementation

Tuesday, 17 May, 2005

As the international presence in Bosnia becomes ever more intrusive, Bosnians inevitably wonder about the international community's ultimate vision for their country, whether ethnic division or reintegration. The internationally designed peace plan agreed in Dayton, Ohio in November 1995 was sufficiently ambiguous to enable nationalists with diametrically opposed agendas to sign on.

It divided the country into two roughly equal entities, the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia), each with its own army, thus recognising the reality of separation. Yet it also enshrined the right of those displaced by the conflict to return home which, if implemented, would destroy the logic behind the division.

Now, although the numbers of refugees returning to areas controlled by the army of a different ethnic group have to date been minimal, it seems that, following last week's final Brcko award, the international community has opted for reintegration.

The fate of Brcko, a strategic town in northern Bosnia which joins eastern and western halves of Republika Srpska, could not be agreed at the Dayton talks and was left for binding international arbitration. The Bosnian Serbs had seized the town, which had a Bosniac-Croat majority, at the beginning of the war in 1992, but most of the surrounding municipality remained under Bosniac and Croat control.

On 5 March, Robert Owen, an American lawyer appointed by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, ruled that the entire pre-war municipality of Brcko would be a "condominium", that is a district shared by both Bosnia's entities, with its own administration. Owen's award followed two interim rulings in 1997 and 1998 in which he appointed an international supervisor and made it clear that the final decision would depend on how the Dayton Peace Agreement was implemented in the contested municipality.

Serb tactics vis-a-vis Brcko, essentially amounted to insistence on maintaining the territorial continuity of Republika Srpska and threats of the consequences, including a return to war, if the arbitration tribunal failed to agree.

Moreover, they nearly paid off at the time of Owen's first interim ruling when the then-American Assistant Secretary of State for the Balkans, John Kornblum, proposed that Brcko town remain in Republika Srpska in a leaked paper whose authenticity was subsequently denied. In his final award Owen rejected the "alleged" principle of territorial continuity. He also ruled that the Bosnian Serb authorities had failed to implement the peace agreement in Brcko, cataloguing the ways in which they had obstructed both the return of Bosniacs and Croats to the town and the return of displaced Serbs living there to the Federation.

He singled out the actions of Republika Srpksa's President Nikola Poplasen, who had threatened a military response to an adverse ruling days before the decision, as key to his ruling. Poplasen was dismissed that same day by the High Representative, Carlos Westendorp.

In protest at the Brcko award, Serb members of Bosnia's joint institutions, including the Serb member of Bosnia's three-person collective Presidency, suspended participation. In a 10-hour emergency session Republika Srpska's parliament rejected both the decision and Poplasen's dismissal, and condemned the "murder" of a member of Poplasen's party who had attacked American peace-keepers on the day of the decision, and was shot dead.

Elsewhere, angry Serbs destroyed vehicles belonging to the United Nations and lobbed grenades at offices occupied by international agencies. Despite the incidents, the likelihood of the Bosnian Serbs taking up arms again is minimal. Republika Srpska cannot look to Yugoslavia for military support because its army is entangled in Kosovo. The once belligerent Bosnian Serb media have been under international control since October 1997. And the military balance in Bosnia has shifted since the end of the war in favour of the Federation, thanks in part to America's $400 million "train and equip" programme.

Diplomats hope that the Bosnian Serbs will now knuckle down, recognise reality and adopt a more constructive attitude towards the peace process.

Moreover, there are already signs that pragmatism is prevailing. Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska's prime minister who publicly resigned in the wake of the Brcko award, has continued to perform his duties much as normal.

Though still unhappy at the decision, he, nevertheless, met with Brcko's international supervisor to discuss implementation and continues to stress the importance of co-operation with the international community.

In an annex to the award (which is still subject to modification by the parties over the next two months), Owen sketched out a phased plan for the reintegration of the two halves of the Brcko municipality and eventual removal of the inter-entity boundary line. Precise details and time-frame are up to the international supervisor. However, the annex includes the gradual merger of penal, judicial and educational systems, the harmonisation of laws and the formation of multi-ethnic institutions with the possibility of an ethnic key. Moreover, it is sweetened by exemptions from military service and entity taxes.

The Brcko award has already set a precedent as far as international involvement in Bosnia is concerned. Instead of pursuing the line of least resistance and leaving the status quo, Owen has chosen to take on the Bosnian Serbs. Brcko may yet set a precedent for the rest of Bosnia, if the forces of reintegration win out and the two halves of the municipality can be welded together. If, however, the forces of division prove the more powerful and hard-line nationalists continue to obstruct refugee return, Owen has retained the ultimate sanction of awarding the municipality outright to the more compliant side.

Christopher Bennett is author of Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse (Chris Hurst, 1995) and former director of the International Crisis Group in the Balkans.

Support our journalists