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Yugoslavia: Neutral Brcko Inaugurated

Yesterday marked the official implementation of the new Brcko "neutral" district statute, a move the West hopes will be remembered as another milestone along the road to full and permanent peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But as RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports, despite the forward progress, officials warn of still more difficulty ahead.

Brcko, Bosnia-Herzegovina; 9 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The debate over ultimate control of Brcko in the northeast corner of Bosnia has been thorny from the outset. Since 1995, the town has been divided between Bosnia's two post-war entities -- the Serb separatist republic, Republika Srpska (RS), and the Croat-Muslim Federation (CMF) -- but the town itself is within RS.

It was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the 1992-95 Bosnian war. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright yesterday recalled, in remarks before SFOR troops in Bosnia, that some critics had predicted Brcko would "blow up" and take the whole Bosnian peace process with it.

Serbs regard control of the town, whose pre-war population of 87,000 was more than 70 percent Muslim or Croat, as vital because the five-kilometer Brcko corridor links the two halves of their republic. Under the new plan, however, the Brcko district of Bosnia-Herzegovina will become "neutral" and will be run simultaneously by the two authorities.

Its proposed status reportedly led to fierce disagreement up until just before Albright's two-day visit to Bosnia. And at a low-key inauguration ceremony in Brcko yesterday, Albright alluded to the potential for still more tension ahead:

"It did not soothe every hard feeling or cause dancing in the streets. But it was as fair and balanced as circumstances allowed. It met the bottom-line security requirements of every side. It preserved a place at the table for every legitimate interest. And it established a process within which the seeds of cooperation can take root and grow."

Ambassador Robert William Farrant, appointed as Brcko supervisor and deputy high representative (for the Office of the High Representative) in 1997, will have overall responsibility for overseeing the Brcko statute. He said he foresees the main challenge as implementation and its ensuing costs.

The United States and the European Union each announced Wednesday new aid money for Brcko.

European Union External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten announced a pledge of $1.3 million in EU funds for the construction of an interstate Brcko road-bridge. Patten said the contract would be signed in the next few days, with construction to follow soon thereafter. Patten also announced some more practical aid:

"We'll help you create a business environment, we'll supply agricultural machinery as well as livestock, we'll offer help with health financing and a strategic plan for primary health care and public health. We're looking at help for education too."

Support for the Brcko arbitration process has been a major focus of the partnership between the EU and the U.S. Albright yesterday announced $2 million worth of new U.S. aid for Brcko. She said the money would go toward converting existing military bases to civilian use.

But money and modalities aside, western officials say the destiny of Brcko now depends on the ability and willingness of its people to implement the arbitration decision and to fulfill their responsibilities under the new district statute.

Albright said it won't be easy and that there will be many "difficult days."

Indeed, earlier this month, the Brcko Serbs -- many of them refugees from other areas of Bosnia -- demonstrated against moves to expel them from the residences that they currently occupy in order to hand them back to their original owners.