Karadzic defies West by handing power to militant ally

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The Independent Online
Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who is wanted for alleged war crimes, defied Western governments this weekend by restructuring his government in a manner intended to reaffirm Bosnian Serb opposition to the Dayton peace agreement. The shake-up caused Mr Karadzic to relinquish some of his formal authority as president, but it appears unlikely that he is about to drop out of public life altogether.

It seems even more premature to suggest that the West is closer to bringing him to trial by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Moreover, even if Mr Karadzic were to step down in the near future, there is little prospect that his successors would be any less committed to a policy of militant Bosnian Serb nationalism.

This became clear on Saturday after a pre-dawn meeting of the Bosnian Serb assembly in Pale, where Mr Karadzic secured the appointment of Gojko Klickovic, a hardliner, as his new prime minister. He later announced he was delegating some of his own powers as president to Biljana Plavsic, an equally uncompromising nationalist.

Official newspapers in Serbia, which have been waging a relentless propaganda campaign against Mr Karadzic, carried headlines such as "Karadzic gone", suggesting he had been forced out of office. But independent political commentators in Belgrade said the reshuffle in the ranks of the Bosnian Serb leadership did not necessarily amount to a loss of power by Mr Karadzic.

"It is not a serious change. I think that Biljana Plavsic, to the extent to which she will substitute for him, is hardly a change. She is very close to Karadzic. They are virtually the same," said Stojan Cerovic of the respected weekly Vreme.

"Plavsic often sounded more radical than Karadzic. I think that Karadzic is retaining control and that it is no big concession towards greater co-operation," he added.

Aides of Carl Bildt, the international mediator who is responsible for implementing civilian aspects of the Dayton settlement, contested the view that the leadership changes meant Mr Karadzic had given little away. "We believe that this is the beginning of the end of the influence of Dr Karadzic on the political scene. Mr Bildt is continuing to ensure that this sidelining of Dr Karadzic is ratified and consummated," Colum Murphy, a spokesman for Mr Bildt, said.

Failure to secure the removal from power of Mr Karadzic would gravely damage Mr Bildt's authority and undermine the Dayton agreement.

The peace terms require Mr Karadzic and other indicted war criminals to give up public office and be turned over to the tribunal in The Hague. But the 60,000 Nato peace forces in Bosnia have not been entrusted with the specific task of tracking down and arresting the accused men.

Mr Karadzic had stayed largely out of the public eye for several months until last Wednesday, when he engineered the dismissal of his prime minister, Rajko Kasagic.

Mr Bildt and Western governments had cultivated Mr Kasagic as an alternative Bosnian Serb leader, seeing him as a supporter of the Dayton settlement and a relative moderate on the Bosnian Serb political landscape.

His replacement, Mr Klickovic, made his views clear on Saturday when in his first public statement after his appointment, he said he saw no reason for Mr Karadzic to go on trial. He challenged another key point of the Dayton accord by ruling out the early return of Muslim and Croat refugees to their homes in Bosnian Serb territory.

Mr Bildt and Western governments have urged the President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, to help them force Mr Karadzic from power and bring him to trial. The Serbian leader, while no friend to Mr Karadzic, has played his hand cautiously, aware that to sacrifice his former protege would enrage powerful nationalist forces in Belgrade.

Mr Milosevic has told Western negotiators that they should wait for Mr Karadzic to be defeated in Bosnia's first post-war elections, due in September. However, apart from the fact that the Dayton agreement bars Mr Karadzic from standing in the elections, the apparent aim of the Bosnian Serb leader is to stop the vote from taking place or, if it does happen, to destroy its legitimacy.

In a foretaste of these difficulties, a European Union official in the divided Muslim- Croat city of Mostar said on Saturday that elections to reunite the city would be postponed from their scheduled date of 31 May. Hans Birchler, legal adviser to the EU mission in Mostar, suggested the Muslims' refusal to field candidates was a reason. The Spanish head of the EU mission, Ricardo Perez Casado, later denied a decision to postpone the vote had been taken. Earlier this month, parties based in Muslim-held east Mostar failed to register by the deadline.