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Mass Sackings Hope To Kickstart Bosnian Peace Process

The international community has sacked 22 obstructionist Bosnian officials from across the divides and barred them from elected office, in yet another attempt to kickstart the moribund peace process.
By Janez Kovac

The international community in Bosnia has delivered its toughest blow against nationalist hard-liners that have obstructed the peace process by dismissing 22 Bosnian Serb, Croat and Muslim officials.


The mass sacking, which was a joint action of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), is not the first time that uncooperative Bosnian officials have been dismissed.


However, the numbers involved are far greater than on previous occasions. Moreover, dismissed officials will not be able to stand in future elections.


One factor that is believed to have influenced the timing of the decision seems to be the prospect of troop reductions in the spring when NATO plans to cut the size of the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) from 30,000 to 20,000.


"We are running out of time," said a western diplomat, who pointed out that in addition to the planned troop reductions, resources were increasingly being diverted to Kosovo. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said such the sackings were supposed to send a strong message to other nationalist hard-liners and "kickstart" the peace process.


The OHR and OSCE have wide powers under the terms of the 1995 peace agreement ending Bosnia's war. Indeed, High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch is able to impose laws and remove obstructionist officials.


Among nine Serbs, seven Muslims and six Croats, on the list are nine mayors, one governor, two ministers, and several parliamentary deputies and other local or regional officials. Since most of the dismissed officials also hold high-ranking positions within the ruling nationalist parties, international agencies are anticipating a backlash.


Hours before the decision was publicly announced, SFOR raised its level of alert throughout the country in what diplomats describe as a precautionary move to head off problems.


"These officials persistently and consistently obstructed the Dayton Peace Accord," Alexandra Stiglmayer, the OHR spokeswoman, said while announcing the decision. "They violated the laws of their own country, actively worked against return and property repossession as well as against peace and reconciliation."


Tanya Domi, the OSCE spokeswoman, said that the next candidate on the party list would replace those officials who were dismissed from parliaments and assemblies, while the vacated executive positions will have to be re-negotiated.


"As of today, the international community no longer recognises them and no longer works with them," Domi said, adding that all of the 22 officials have done "virtually nothing" to implement the Dayton Peace Accord in the past.


According to Stiglmayer, all 22 sacked officials were notified of the decision in advance of the announcement. SFOR troops would enforce the removal of officials as "a last resort", but the sacked officials were expected to comply, she said.


One sacked official, Banja Luka mayor Djordje Umicevic, made it clear that he would not accept his dismissal. At a press conference organised in Banja Luka one hour before the OHR and OSCE decision was made public, Umicevic said that he would call an extraordinary session of the Banja Luka assembly and would only recognise its decision.


In recent years, Umicevic acquired international notoriety for rejecting plans for the reconstruction of the ancient Ferhadija mosque, which had been destroyed during the war along with all other Muslim religious objects in Banja Luka.


"I never said that Muslim religious objects cannot be built and I always worked for a future without war," Umicevic said at his press conference, attributing attributed his sacking to his visit to Russia and China on November 5. "Somebody is bothered by the fact that Banja Luka has become the western-most Serbian Orthodox metropolis."


Umicevic is not the only high-ranking Bosnian Serb to have been dismissed. The mayor of the Serb-held town of Gorazde, Slavko Topalovic, and several leaders of Serb-held towns and municipalities in northern and eastern Bosnia are also on the list.


Although many of the dismissed Serbs belong to hard-line Serb nationalist parties, the decision will put the pro-western Bosnian Serb Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik, in a difficult situation. He will have to choose whether to accept the sackings, and thus face strong criticism from the Bosnian Serb public, or to reject them and thus potentially lose the western aid money he depends on.


Even the usually more-cooperative Bosnian Muslim leaders appear angered by the decision. The list of dismissed officials includes two influential figures from the Muslim ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Mirsad Veladzic, governor of the Bihac canton, and Dzevad Mlaco, SDA parliamentary deputy and former mayor of Bugojno, as well as Kemal Brodilija, mayor of Kakanj, and Juzuf Zahiragic, Sarajevo cantonal justice minister.


In response, Mirza Hajric, aide to the Muslim member of the presidency, Alija Izetbegovic, said that Muslims were always the most co-operative side in Bosnia and complained that some of the dismissals were an international attempt to "equalize the guilt" among all three ethnic groups.


Hajric considered the decision "inconsistent" since some of the dismissed officials had never been warned for obstructionism, while others, who had previously been criticised by western agencies, had not been dismissed.


Izetbegovic issued a statement saying that he supports OHR decisions in general, but that he did not agree with the sacking of Veladzic and wanted the OHR and OSCE to explain their reasons. Veladzic himself said that the international community is trying to dismiss those who defended Bosnia and bring to power those who were prepared to betray the country.


The Bosnian Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) issued a statement saying that the decision was "surprising and unacceptable". Several high-ranking and influential party members were dismissed, including Krunoslav Kordic and Pero Pazin, mayors of Capljina and Stolac, two towns with some of the worst human rights records, as well as senior officials from municipalities in southern and central Bosnia, like Mostar, Kiseljak and Prozor.


"After this decision, we ask ourselves, where is the implementation of the Dayton heading and who will carry it out, the international community or legally elected local officials," the HDZ said, but stopped short of spelling out whether it would reject the decision.


Local analysts fear that the ruling parties are likely to orchestrate violent incidents in response to the sackings, but believe that the fact that many of the dismissed individuals have been linked with corruption will mean that ordinary Bosnians will be pleased by the decision.


"What has Petritsch been waiting for?" said Mirsad Kahvedzic, a 32-year-old veteran from Sarajevo. "The international community should have sacked all local leaders in 1996." Yet, Kahvedzic stressed that the sacked officials will be replaced by individuals from the same parties, who will probably have the same uncooperative attitudes and political platforms.


"The dismissed officials are not the officials that Bosnia needs," said OHR spokeswoman Stiglmayer. "It is high time for the peace process to make a jump forward and take off convincingly and for real change to take place."


Janez Kovac is an independent journalist from Sarajevo.


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