New Bosnia splits down old lines

The presidency cannot even agree where to meet, writes Tony Barber
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The Independent Online
Post-election political conflict broke out in Bosnia yesterday as Serbs and Muslims argued over where the republic's new collective presidency should meet. The dispute enhanced the impression of most non- governmental Western observers that last Saturday's elections have reinforced rather than reversed Bosnia's tripartite division into Serb, Muslim and Croat sectors.

Momcilo Krajisnik, a Bosnian Serb nationalist who won election to the three-man presidency, said the body should meet in a building on the dividing line between the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia and the Muslim-Croat half. "They want the building smack on the border, with one door on the [Muslim- Croat] federation side and another door on the Serb side," a Nato source said.

Muslim leaders accused the Serbs of raising the demand as a way of paralysing the presidency before it has even started to function. The Muslims would prefer the presidency to meet in Sarajevo, which is in the Muslim-Croat sector.

The presidency will include politicians from all three Bosnian nationalities - Mr Krajisnik for the Serbs, Alija Izetbegovic for the Muslims, and Kresimir Zubak for the Croats. Under the terms of last year's Dayton peace settlement, the presidency is supposed to govern by consensus, without prejudice to the interests of any of Bosnia's three nationalities.

However, the dispute over the presidency's venue suggests that Messrs Krajisnik, Izetbegovic and Zubak may never agree on anything of substance. Mr Krajisnik campaigned in the pre-election period for Serb secession from Bosnia and the unification of the Bosnian Serb region, known as Republika Srpska, with Serbia proper.

Mr Zubak, for his part, advocates close links between the Bosnian Croats and Croatia, and he agreed only reluctantly to the recent dissolution of the separatist Bosnian Croat mini-state, established in 1992, called Herzeg-Bosnia. Meanwhile, Mr Izetbegovic, who will chair the Bosnian presidency, is suspected by the Serbs and Croats of pursuing a militantly Muslim nationalist agenda.

Western governments insisted that Bosnia's elections should go ahead in accordance with the timetable set out at Dayton, even though it was clear from the outset that the vote would produce overwhelming triumphs for the three nationalist parties that sparked the 1992-95 war. The post- election paradox is that, while these parties now have a new democratic legitimacy, none of them appears willing to honour the spirit of the Dayton agreement that called for a united, decentralised, tolerant Bosnia.

Elections for the leadership of Republika Srpska resulted in a substantial victory for Biljana Plavsic, who became acting president of the Bosnian Serb sector after the indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic was forced by the West to stand down. The political views of Mrs Plavsic, who won 66.1 per cent of the vote, appear not to differ greatly from those of Mr Krajisnik and other secessionist Serbs.

The small chance that Bosnia may overcome its wartime divisions and avoid renewed conflict rests on the continued involvement of Nato, whose year- long mandate to keep a peace force in Bosnia expires in December. Nato's Secretary-General, Javier Solana, made clear yesterday that alliance forces, including those of the United States, would stay beyond December despite President Bill Clinton's pledge that US soldiers would serve in Bosnia for no longer than a year.

"I believe that the international community, including Nato, must remain engaged in Bosnia beyond this first year," Mr Solana told the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "On the security side, there may well be a requirement for a continued military presence in Bosnia . . . albeit smaller and for a strictly limited term."

It is generally expected that Nato would maintain a presence in Bosnia until December 1997, with a minimum of 20,000 troops on the ground. This would be well below the present deployment of 58,000 troops, but crucially it would involve a substantial number of US soldiers, without whose presence no European government is willing to keep troops in Bosnia.

However, even Nato's continued commitment would not guarantee the reversal of the physical separation of nationalities caused by the war. It should prove possible to keep the peace in Bosnia in 1997, but it may prove impossible to reverse the republic's partition.