The status of Bosnia-Hercegovina’s northern town of Brcko, the only territorial issue in Bosnia left unresolved by the Dayton Accords in December 1995, was finally settled this month, by a typically indecisive western fudge. Carl Westendorp, the west’s High Representative in Bosnia, announced on March 5 that the port town on the Sava River would be ‘neutral territory’ jointly controlled by the ‘Serb Republic’ and the Muslim-Croat Federation, the two constituent parts of post-war Bosnia.
Although this decision has been presented as even-handed and diplomatic, in real terms it amounts to confirming the Serbs’ occupation of the city and rewarding the gains they made through ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the early months of the Bosnian war. Until it was overrun by Serbs in May-June 1992, Brcko was predominantly Muslim and Serbs were its smallest community. Even this compromise decision, however, attracted an angry response from the Serbs, who immediately protested and threatened to withdraw all co-operation from the international institutions in Bosnia. They were also angry at Westendorp’s decision, announced the same day, to dismiss Bosnian Serb president Nikola Poplasen for abusing his powers. However, the Serbs’ threat seemed to be receding as Crescent went to press, after Westendorp clarified on March 8 that “the [Serbian] territory as shown on the Dayton map will remain continuous.”
This statement amounts to confirmation that nothing in Brcko will really change. The town, which sits astride the narrowest part of the strip linking the two ‘wings’ of the Serb Republic, in the east and west of Bosnia, has been ruled by the Serbs since Dayton. It is a town which was viciously emptied of Muslims during the war, and is also of strategic importance to Bosnia as a key river port and a rail junction linking Bosnia to western Europe.
Brcko’s status was left unresolved at Dayton because it was demanded by the Serbs, though all natural justice suggested it should be returned to the Bosnians. Three years after the Dayton Accords ended the shooting war, the Brcko decision indicates clearly that the west is still unable or unwilling to impose its decision against the will of the Serbs, no matter how clear cut the matter in moral terms. This bodes ill both for the future of Bosnia itself, and for other communities facing Serbian oppression and relying on western intervention.
Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1999