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Bosnia: Developments Point To New Political Constellations

  • Patrick Moore

Prague, 26 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The past few weeks have witnessed some remarkable developments in Bosnia. New political constellations are taking shape, but it is not clear whether they will last.

The Bosnian Serbs were for many years international pariahs who enjoyed close contacts only with Serbia, Greece and Russia. But during the time between last summer, when Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic broke with Radovan Karadzic's supporters in Pale, and this January, when reformer Milorad Dodik became prime minister, the Bosnian Serbs have become the darlings of the international community. Scarcely a day now seems to go by on which Dodik does not receive a pledge of money or other aid from a foreign diplomat or politician.

The reason for the foreigners' generosity is that Plavsic and Dodik have said they are committed to implementing the Dayton agreement. To show their sincerity, the two have implemented some basic reforms aimed at curbing the hard-liners' hold on the economy, police and army. Plavsic and Dodik have also made it clear to foreign capitals that the moderate Bosnian Serb leadership can survive only if some degree of prosperity and development comes to the Republika Srpska, where the per capita income is approximately 35 dollars per month and the unemployment rate 70 percent.

Their point has been well taken. In February, Plavsic visited France and received all honors due to a head of state. When Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim member of the Bosnian joint presidency, subsequently filed a formal protest with Paris and accused the French of favoring the Serbs, hardly any European or North American political commentator outside Izetbegovic's own Party for Democratic Action sympathized with him. Instead, Izetbegovic was portrayed in the foreign press as a bitter old man who is angry that he and his followers are no longer the West's sole friends in Bosnia.

Dodik, for his part, paid his first foreign visit not to Moscow or Athens, but to Bonn. This may not seem strange when one considers Germany's long-standing economic, political, and social importance for all parts of the former Yugoslavia -- it is no accident that the new Bosnian joint currency is called the "convertible mark." But Dodik's choice of Bonn clearly is quite remarkable when one recalls the vehemence of Serbian propaganda directed against Germany since at least 1991, when the former Yugoslavia broke up.

The irony of the Bosnian Serbs' new foreign policy preferences appeared even more pronounced soon after Dodik left Bonn. German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel visited Banja Luka and promised substantial aid to his hosts. Plavsic praised him, saying: "it is good to have a friend in the European Union who will defend our interests with objectivity and I think we have found a good friend." Such sentiments would have been unthinkable from any Serbian leader anywhere in the former Yugoslavia just a few months earlier.

One week ago, Dodik went to Washington, where Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described him as a "breath of fresh air." Shortly thereafter, Robert Gelbard, the U.S. special envoy for the former Yugoslavia, went to Belgrade, where he praised Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for having shown "good will" and "a significant positive influence" by backing Plavsic and Dodik.

Gelbard did not, however, lift the "outer sanctions" that still keep Belgrade out of full membership in the international community; such a step will come only when Yugoslavia becomes more democratic and finds a solution to the Kosovo question. But Gelbard did bring some presents for Milosevic, including landing rights for JAT airlines in the U.S. as well as the right to open a consulate in New York.

Gelbard had quite a different message, however, for Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Ever since Tudjman signed a U.S.-brokered peace with the Muslims in early 1994, he has been fond of referring to his "strategic partnership" with Washington. But early this week, Gelbard said -- in Belgrade -- that a recent speech by Tudjman included territorial claims on Bosnia, which Gelbard called "outrageous, dangerous and ridiculous."

Shortly after Gelbard thus accused Tudjman of "violating the Dayton agreement," the international community's chief representative in Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, urged Tudjman to fire the hard-line Croatian mayor of Stolac, who is at least partly responsible for preventing local Muslim refugees from returning home. Westendorp's spokesman said that his boss gave Tudjman one week to get rid of the mayor or face a loss of his own political credibility.

Where political trends will go from this week is far from clear. On February 24, Izetbegovic's followers in the Bosnian government finally gave in to long-standing international pressure and sent to parliament a law on property rights that will enable Croatian and Serbian refugees to return to their flats in Sarajevo.

The next day, however, Tudjman's party, the Croatian Democratic Community, declared in a statement that Zagreb will not be bullied by "improper statements by foreign diplomats and opposition leaders." The text added that Tudjman had simply stated historical facts about Bosnia "that cannot be denied."

Meanwhile, foreign capitals will be watching to see what Dodik does with his aid money and whether he succeeds in breaking the power base of Radovan Karadzic's backers.