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Special Reports

Brcko: Bosnia’s problem, and the west’s failure, in microcosm

Adis Burazerovic
Admin Podrug

Two weeks after the announcement of the Arbitration Tribunal’s ‘final decision’ on the status of Brcko on March 5, an ‘Annex’ to the decision was added on March 19, clarifying the city’s new status and elaborating on some of the Tribunal’s earlier statements. The Annex is intended, at least in part, to defuse Serbian objections to the original decision, which had led to a stand-off between the ‘International Community’ (IC) authorities and the Republika Srpska (RS) government.

Brcko has a unique strategic position in Bosnia: it lies in a corridor of land that is the only direct link between the eastern and western parts of the RS; and the same corridor stands between the Croat-Muslim Federation and eastern Croatia. Brcko is also a key river port and has a major railway junction linking Bosnia to northern and western Europe.

The Dayton Peace Accords gave Brcko to neither the Republika Srpska nor the Bosnian-Croat Federation. Instead an international supervisor was appointed to oversee its government (which remained in the hands of the Serbs who had occupied the city in May and June 1992, and brutally ‘cleansed’ it of its majority Muslim and Croatian people) and an Arbitration Tribunal was appointed to decide its final status. The Tribunal was originally supposed to reach its decision by December 1996 but failed to do so. In February 1997, the matter was deferred for a year. The same happened in March 1998. The decision which has now been reached reflects both the aims and the weaknesses of the west’s strategy in Bosnia. The stated goal of the Dayton Accords was to create a state in which all citizens could live, secure in the knowledge that their rights and liberties as individuals are respected, regardless of ethnic or religious background.

In Brcko that goal has been realised no better than anywhere else in Bosnia. As a result, even ethnic majority residents of both entities continue to live in constant insecurity, uncertain whether the police, judiciary, and civil service of their own ethnic group will protect their most basic human rights. For minorities, the sad certainty is that they will not be protected at all. In many ways, Brcko is a microcosm of the IC’s task in Bosnia. It is controlled by three ethnic groups who dominate in different areas: Croats control Ravne/Brcko; the Bosniacs Brka; and the Serbs Brcko town and immediate surrounding areas. Minority returns within the boundaries of the pre-war Brcko municipality have been limited to the Zone of Separation (ZOS), or areas where the returnees are not in the minority.

The town police-force and administration have been integrated on paper, but in fact they remain under the control of the local ruling Serb political party (SDS). They created an environment that discourages return of refugees and cements the results of ethnic cleansing.

In order to create a workable, multi-ethnic Brcko, the IC’s decision has been to make Brcko a ‘district’ which is part of neither the RS nor the Federation. In theory, this should end IC involvement in Bosnian affairs. With this, the story of IC and Bosnia has come to an end, in theory at least. However the implementation of the decision remains problematic, with RS president Nikola Poplasen and the RS government refusing to recognize the decision. It now comes to the situation of ‘all or nothing’. The question is whether the IC’s High Representative in Bosnia, Carl Westendorp, with all his backing, can see off ultra-nationalist Poplasen, or whether he will have to pack his bags and leave while some successor renegotiates the settlement with the Serbs. The annex to the final decision proclaims Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs constitutive peoples in the Brcko district. It gives all residents of Brcko the right to choose allegiance to one the Bosnia’s constituent entities, the Federation or the RS, regardless of where they live in the District. None of the inhabitants will pay entity taxes or have a duty to serve in the armed forces. The District will be governed by a government whose members and structures will be decided by the international supervisor according to the Constitution of the District.

The Supervisor will also, if necessary, establish an ‘ethnic formula’ by which the structure of the ruling body will remain constant regardless of demographic changes in Brcko’s populations which may alter the city’s ethnic balance. The existing laws will be changed, this will create a unique law system of the District. There also will be a custom control to gather excise duties. The deficit between expected income from duties and the District’s expenditure will be made up by the entities in the ratio two-thirds from the Federation and one-third from RS.

Every District resident will be entitled to vote for the District government, the federal government of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and for the House of Representatives whichever entity they choose to belong to. The Latin and Cyrillic alphabets (Bosnian and Serb respectively) will have equal status, and all documents will be issued in any one of Bosnia’s three recognised languages. Identity cards will be issued by the District government or by the Supervisor, while all government symbols will indicate the neutrality of the District. The District’s main flag will be the new Bosnia-Hercegovina flag, while the use of both entity flags will be permitted but only if both are flown together.

These arrangements, like the post-Dayton structures in Bosnia as a whole, reflect both the ideals of a multi-ethnic Bosnia, and the realities on the ground, where the Serbs remain determined to disrupt any realization of this ideal.

The International Community has, so far, failed to create the lasting structures necessary to implement the Dayton agreement and create a sustainable multiethnic society anywhere in Bosnia. Brcko should, on all moral grounds, have been returned to Bosnian control. By leaving the Serbs with substantial powers, after three-and-a-half years of full control which have seen no improvement in the situation there, the IC has again fudged the issue and left hostages to future abuses. This is another among many IC’s decisions that have deep and damaging consequences for Bosnians and their future. Paradoxically, and tragically for Bosnia, the country remains dependent on these dubious friends; were the IC to leave, war would soon break out again.

Muslimedia: April 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 3

Dhu al-Hijjah 14, 14191999-04-01

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