Losing The Peace?

For the people of the Republika Srpska, the international dismissal of Nikola Poplasen and the Brcko decision smacks of more than just bad timing.

Losing The Peace?

For the people of the Republika Srpska, the international dismissal of Nikola Poplasen and the Brcko decision smacks of more than just bad timing.

By deliberately combining the dismissal of Nikola Poplasen, the democratically-elected President of Republika Srpska (RS), with the decision to remove the strategically vital town of Brcko from effective Serbian control, the international community in Bosnia has disrupted its fragile peace process and thrown the RS entity into a political crisis.

While the general consensus here is that the international community's High Representative, Carlos Westendorp, acted correctly by dismissing Poplasen, the move may have been ill-timed considering the current climate here. Westendorp's move provided the dismissed president's Radical Party--led in Serbia by Vojislav Seselj, President Milosevic's extremist deputy--with the opportunity to again denounce the constitutional basis of the RS and further inflame tensions.

While Poplasen is not the kind of person whose removal would ordinarily trigger a political earthquake, his removal was immediately followed by the Brcko decision which effectively divides Republika Srpska in two. The combination of the two acts has created tensions and installed a sense of impending doom not seen here since NATO's bombing of RS positions around Pale in 1995.

The parliament in Republika Srpska refused to accept Westendorp's decision, citing it unconstitutional under the terms of both the RS constitution and Dayton. In the same session, the RS parliament voted against the decision on Brcko. Thus the RS parliament and the high representative seem to be on a collision course over the unhappy cocktail created by the international communty's lead player in Bosnia.

This last week has seen a worsening of relations between the international community and large segment of the Serbian population, to the extent that those moderates and intellectuals who have stood opposed to the anti-SFOR elements within society are hardening their attitudes and becoming increasingly hostile towards the international community and to Westendorp in particular.

The actions of the High Representative already appear to have succeeded in erasing the differences between RS prime minister Milorad Dodik and Dragan Kalinic, leader of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS). In the Balkans where personalities so often dominate politics, the presence and behaviour of US special envoy to the region, Robert Gelbard, has helped to further sour relations between the two sides. Never the best of friends, Poplasen and Gelbard have each traded insults with the other, and the belief here is that Poplasen's labelling Gelbard a "failed politician" not only cost him his job, but also now threatens the very existence of the Radical Party. According to sources within the Office of the High Representative (OHR), Gelbard has already been heard loudly demanding Westendorp abolish the Radicals as a political party.

Certainly, there is a right-wing block of parties in Republika Srpska including the Radicals, which have long been firmly against the Dayton agreement. However, they enjoy a significant following, and the electorate will certainly not react positively to a ban on their party. Such a move would be counterproductive--especially since the Radicals had begun to move slowly towards the political centre. Many observers here believe that Westendorp and Gelbard should have played a different game and worked instead to protect Poplasen from Belgrade and the influence of President Slobodan Milosevic and Vojislav Seselj, rather than dismiss him.

The decision on Brcko and Poplasen raises the question what the international community now intends to do with the Serbs? By putting them in a situation when they have less and less to lose, Westendorp is coming close to the point when a significant part of the intellectual and democratic potential within the entity will finally call a halt to its co-operative policy towards Sarajevo and the West. Where does this all lead? Milorad Dodik's pragmatists who were likewise not happy with the Dayton agreement, but calculated that it was not worth fighting against, now desperately need some proof that Westendorp is not out to break them.

Igor Gajic is executive editor of the Banja Luka biweekly magazine Reporter.

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