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1997 Year in Review: Bosnia Looks Toward Dayton's Third Year

Prague, 29 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Two years after the Dayton peace agreement came into force, Bosnia-Herzegovina faces problems centering on the role of the international community in implementing the treaty, on domestic political factors, and on economic development.

If there is anything on which most observers of the Bosnian scene agree, it is that the military provisions of the Dayton agreement have generally been well implemented. The international peacekeepers -- currently known as SFOR -- have taken a no-nonsense approach toward any serious violations, and have been quick to seize illegal arms caches, or to punish any party that stages illegal maneuvers. An immediate return to fighting would, therefore, seem out of the question, at least as long as the peacekeepers are present.

The implementation of Dayton's civilian provisions presents a less clear picture. Most observers would say, however, that there have been at least three serious shortcomings in implementing the civilian provisions, and that time for enforcing them is running out.

The first is the creation of joint Bosnian institutions, which are clearly outlined in the peace agreement. The Serbs have been particularly obstinate in boycotting sessions of the joint presidency or blocking an agreement on a common citizenship. This is because any consolidation of a unified Bosnia works against the Serbian hard-line goal of dividing that country and joining the Republika Srpska to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's state.

In response to the Serbs' stone-walling, leaders of the international community agreed in Bonn in early December that Carlos Westendorp, the international community's main representative, should have the power to set and enforce deadlines to ensure compliance with the civilian provisions. A key question in 1998 will be whether he uses his powers, and whether the major powers and SFOR back him up.

A second issue is freedom of movement and the right of refugees to return to their homes. To date, Bosnia remains divided by internal frontiers, and few if any refugees have gone home to an area controlled by another ethnic group.

In September 1997, the international community sponsored local elections, in which refugees were allowed to cast ballots for governments in their home areas. The coming months will show whether or not the major powers are prepared to enforce the results of the vote, so that, for example, Muslim refugees can return to Srebrenica and take part in the affairs of the local council.

A third problem is war criminals. Dayton allows for the peacekeepers to arrest individuals indicted by The Hague tribunal if the soldiers come upon them. In July, British special forces arrived in Bosnia to arrest two Serbs, while in December, Dutch commandos seized two Croats.

But reports persist of SFOR personnel deliberately looking the other way when well-known war criminals drive past NATO checkpoints or even drink in the same bars as the peacekeepers. SFOR officials argue that it is not their job to hunt war criminals.

SFOR's critics, however, maintain that there will be no peace in Bosnia until persons indicted by The Hague are brought to justice, and stress that it is intolerable that major figures like Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic remain free. In December, The Hague's Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour openly accused France of blocking the court's work. In any event, it remains to be seen whether the British and Dutch actions will prove to be isolated ones.

But if the foreigners bear responsibility for many of the post-Dayton problems, the former Yugoslavs do so, as well.

While, however, the hard-line Serbs in Pale have been the main obstructionists, since late June, they have been openly opposed by Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic and her alternative power center in Banja Luka.

Plavsic is as nationalistic as her rivals, but argues that the Dayton agreement has much to offer the Serbs and has expressed a willingness to work within its framework. It is not clear, however, which Serb faction will ultimately win out, nor is it clear whether Plavsic will actually work to implement Dayton and, for example, encourage Muslims and Croats to return to Banja Luka.

The Muslims and Croats have had there share of problems, too. As a recent RFE/RL editorial pointed out, the Muslims and Croats were the darlings of the international community at the time Dayton was signed, but are now under a cloud. In the case of the Croats, it is because they and their patrons in Zagreb are widely seen as dragging their feet on implementing Dayton, particularly on reuniting Mostar.

In the case of the Muslims, public revelations by Westendorp in October suggested that the Muslims (and their Croatian allies) have been guilty of corruption on a vast scale. Both the Muslims and Croats have allegedly diverted customs revenues and aid money to maintain structures -- such as intelligence services -- that were supposed to have disappeared under Dayton. Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic has promised an investigation.

The Muslim authorities themselves, furthermore, were forced to admit that foreign Islamic fighters remain a security problem, and launch a dragnet against them in December. While Izetbegovic's supporters in the West applauded the action, the incident served to raise fresh questions about the role of Islamic hard-liners in Bosnian Muslim politics.

A final issue facing Bosnia is economic development. In the Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian areas alike, there are tens of thousands of demobilized young men whose only recently acquired trade has been killing.

The economic question is most acute in the Republika Srpska, where some estimates put the per capita monthly income at as low as $35. Plavsic has argued that peace and stability require prosperity, and has appealed for investments.