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Bosnia: Bosnian Serbs, International Officials React To Key Rulings

Prague, 9 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Serbian entity in Bosnia and the international community appear set on a collision course following two key rulings by the international authorities affecting the Republika Srpska.

One of the rulings, made on Friday, dismisses the President of the Republic, hard-liner Nikola Poplasen, for interfering in the entity's democratic process. The other ruling, made the same day, removes the strategic town of Brcko from unilateral Serbian control and places it under joint Serb, Croat, and Muslim authority.

The Serbian parliament last night (Mar. 7) firmly rejected both rulings, describing the sacking of Poplasen as unacceptable and the Brcko ruling as unjust. Poplasen said of his dismissal:

"I cannot accept the decision because it is a question of the people's political will. I can be delegitimized only by their will. The constitution says a referendum has to be held to show whether the voters trust me, or want to elect someone else. I would accept that as a democratic solution."

The international high representative in Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, used the authority he holds under the Dayton peace accords to sack Poplasen. He did so after Poplasen moved to block the appointment of moderate acting Prime Minister Milorad Dodik. Ironically, both hard-liners and moderates were largely united in condemning Poplasen's firing.

In a telephone interview from Sarajevo yesterday, Deputy High Representative Simon Haselock told RFE/RL that he believes the Bosnian Serb parliament's initial reaction represented what he called an outpouring of indignation, rather than substantive support for Poplasen:

"The moderates in Republika Srpska cannot have it both ways. On the one hand they were complaining that President Poplasen was blocking democratic process by preventing laws which they had voted upon. He was also using illegal tactics to try to dismiss the caretaker government in Republika Srpska, therefore creating a vacuum in government there".

Haselock said that Poplasen had also acted against democratic principles by declining to accept Dodik who had, according to Haselock, the support of the elected parliament and was the only person who enjoyed such support. In the final analysis, Haselock added, if the parliamentarians believe Poplasen has been acting against the interests of the people of Srpska, it is inevitable that he will have to step down.

Haselock also said that "when the dust settles," Poplasen will recognize this himself. He said Poplasen had not been acting in accord with the Republika Srpska's constitution, but had instead been reacting to pressure from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and nationalist Serb elements in Belgrade.

As to the ruling on Brcko, the deep-seated Serb objections to it center on their perception that the Serbian entity will be cut in two separate parts if they lose control of the Brcko corridor. Serbian forces overran Brcko in 1992, and the Serbs have held it since then.

Haselock however views this perception as misguided:

"There is no question that this decision -- as portrayed by the hard-liners -- splits the continuity of the Republika Srpska. They have territorial rights over the whole of Brcko area now, whereas they had control of less than half of it in the past. But those territorial rights are shared with the [Bosnian Croat-Muslim] Federation. There is complete freedom of movement [in Brcko], the laws and government procedures which are there at the moment will continue, and there will be significant international supervision in the medium-term to ensure that the rights of all people and all communities in Bosnia are protected."

The shadow of violence is never far way in Bosnia, and Serb hard-liners have already hinted at the use of force to overturn the Brcko ruling. Conversely, the international officials have said their rulings must be respected, and will eventually have to be enforced if necessary.

But the situation now is calm, and a spokesman for the NATO-led SFOR peace force has praised the responsibility displayed so far by the Serbs. Lieutenant Commander Dave Scanlon told RFE/RL:

"Most of the debate is taking place in the political arena, which is a good thing. Over the weekend we saw a number of demonstrations, but they were all peaceful, and security was provided for all those demonstrations by local police, and by and large SFOR was on the sidelines."

Scanlon said SFOR is pleased to see that people are acting in this responsible way, particularly the police and local authorities. He said there had been a few acts by extremists. But most people, according to Scanlon, have been engaging in active political dialogue through the same methods that would be used in any democratic state, and this is a good thing, he said.