Peacekeepers: Bosnia's minders look in vain for the exit

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If the Dayton peace accord had gone according to schedule, the international community would now be looking at a gentle withdrawal from Bosnia. But the talk at today's Peace Implementation Council meeting in Bonn is likely to be of greater, not lesser, international involvement. Andrew Gumbel reports on the drift towards keeping Bosnia as a kind of international protectorate.

Once upon a time, it was fashionable to think that elections would solve the problems in Bosnia that four years of brutal but inconclusive conflict had only exacerbated. The international community set up a formidable machine to service the country's complex post-war constitution, with its multiple presidencies, parliaments and local councils that both link and divide the two entities (Serbs on one side, Moslems and Croats on the other).

As a result, Bosnia has elections coming out of its ears. September's municipal polls were so hard to administer that the results were not made known for more than a month. Two weeks ago, the Bosnian Serbs voted for a new parliament. Next year, fresh elections are slated to renew nearly all of the country's fragile institutions.

Rather than leading the country towards greater autonomy, however, the elections seem only to be increasing Bosnia's dependence on the outside world. Not only have Nato and the reluctant US Defense Department acknowledged the need to maintain a considerable peace-keeping force beyond the nominal pull-out date next summer, but the civilian authorities - notably the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe which has both monitored and run all the elections so far - also see no chance to hand over their powers to local authorities any time soon.

At today's Bonn meeting the civilian High Representative's office will be lobbying for binding powers of arbitration to resolve disputes between the federal presidents of the three national groupings. Despite some resistance to such ideas, notably from Russia, the word "protectorate" is being bandied about by international negotiators with increasing frequency.

"What we're looking at is a Cyprus situation, in which there is little or no prospect of the core issues being resolved if the international community stays, but every prospect of renewed conflict if it goes," remarked one senior OSCE official.

The nub of the problem is the continuing sway of nationalist political parties. Trust between the three communities is so low, and fear of renewed conflict so great, that voters feel they have to protect their own grouping's immediate interests first. But that means only growing entrenchment in the positions of the former warring factions, and a near-total breakdown in their common institutions.

September's municipal polls were intended to help address this problem by encouraging refugees to vote in their old homes and thus force two or more hostile groupings to work together. But the Muslim councillors who won a majority in Srebrenica are too scared to set foot in the town, much less co-operate with the Serb leadership that massacred their people by the thousand. There are similar stories of Croat intransigence towards the Serbs in Drvar, or towards the Muslims in Zepce.

In Brcko, the contested city that forms a pivot between the two halves of Serb-held Bosnia, a mixed Serb-Muslim council has been successfully established, but its every move is forever being denounced as unconstitutional or unfair by one side or the other.

Most intransigent of all is the hardline Serb leadership based in Pale in the mountains outside Sarajevo. The power structure established by their wartime president, Radovan Karadzic, is still intact and very much under his personal influence, even though he has been indicted for war crimes in The Hague and forced to go to ground.

The international community's biggest hope over the past few months has been the emergence of a rival, more outward-looking Serb leadership under Mr Karadzic's successor Biljana Plavsic, based in the north-western city of Banja Luka. But the recent Bosnian Serb elections, whose results were announced on Sunday, failed to turn the tide convincingly away from Mr Karadzic's party, and now look like creating a stalemate in which no stable majority can be formed.

Failing a dismantling of the Karadzic machine (his imminent arrest has been rumoured for months, but is yet to materialise), Serb Bosnia looks likely to split into two, with the western half becoming more open-minded and co-operative and the eastern half sinking deeper into paranoid nationalism.

According to their own logic, the Pale authorities have every interest in scuppering the peace process, which explains why there has been little or no advance on such pan-Bosnian issues as an integrated phone system, common passports and car licence plates, and a common currency.

The international community does have some powerful tools at its disposal, notably aid money which is now flowing more strongly towards Mrs Plavsic's half of Serb Bosnia and markedly less so towards Pale. According to a prominent risk analysis company in London, private investors have not given up hoping that a reasonable venture capital environment might emerge after another election or two.

But progress can never be substantial as long as the political scene remains so intransigent. While the Bosnian Serbs may be inching towards greater pluralism, there are signs of radicalisation among the Muslims, with an increasingly powerful faction in their own nationalist party talking about setting up an independent, ethnically pure Bosniak state. Relations between the Muslims and Croats in such divided cities as Mostar remain as tense as ever.

Elections have not removed the war-mongers; at best they have curbed their power at the price of political paralysis. No wonder the international community is tempted to take a more proactive role itself - even if this means sinking ever deeper into the Bosnian miasma.