Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Bosnia Faces Divide Along Ethnic Lines

BOSNIA'S nationalists say it is capitulation to Bosnian Serb war criminals. Liberals say it is the death of multiethnic Bosnia. But most exhausted residents of this besieged city say it is their last hope for peace.

With the help of the United States, Bosnian Serb separatists finally won their three-year war with the Muslim-led government in an elegant Geneva conference room. On Friday, a US-backed joint statement issued by the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia gave the Bosnian Serbs something that the West had vowed to never give them: an independent state.

About these ads

In a deal that diplomats say is a first step toward a comprehensive settlement, multiethnic Bosnia - the closest thing in the former Yugoslavia to the American ideal of a melting pot - will be divided into a Muslim and Croat half and a Serb half. The pact is the equivalent of, say, how the US - tired of fighting heavily armed separatists - might capitulate to international pressure, split itself in two, and grant the separatists their own country.

A state headed by two indicted war criminals, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, is being sanctioned by an international community desperate to make peace in Bosnia. More important, a sad and dangerous precedent for resolving ethnic conflict is being set, Sarajevo residents warn, and US fingerprints are all over it.

"This policy was adopted by President Clinton to save himself from lifting the arms embargo and to clean up the situation before the elections," says a retired Sarajevo doctor who asked not to be named. "It's not a just peace in any way, not at all."

US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke declared on Friday that the Bosnian Serbs received only a self-ruling "entity" in the agreement, not an independent state. Despite having only 31 percent of Bosnia's population, the "Republika Srpska" or Republic of Serbians, will control 49 percent of Bosnia and retain its own constitution, flag, army, government, and be able to ally itself with Serbia.

The Muslims, who make up 44 percent of Bosnia's population, will probably end up with 30 percent of Bosnia, and their nominal Bosnian Croat allies, who make up 17 percent of the population, will control 20 percent.

The thorny process of dividing Bosnia has yet to be resolved. On the streets of Sarajevo, the consensus is that the agreement is cynical, unfair, and American-imposed, but the best possibility for peace. "It's OK. It's not the best," says Mirilam Jusic, who has spent the last three years fighting in the Bosnian Army. "Bosnia will unite again. Economics and love interests will bring us together."

Western officials say the agreement retains the groundwork for a future reunification of the country. The Bosnian Serbs, who control mostly rural areas, will be forced to sell their goods to Muslim-controlled cities and build strong economic links.

About these ads

By accepting the deal, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic is risking his political future. After more than 250,000 deaths, the Bosnian Serbs are still going to get their own ethnically pure state. Some Sarajevans are questioning why the war was even fought.

Critics blame Mr. Izetbegovic for not accepting the Lisbon Agreement in March 1992, which would have partitioned Bosnia just before fighting erupted. How the country was to be divided was never decided, but critics say the government would have received more than 51 percent.

By finally accepting partition, Izetbegovic and his Muslim-led Party of Democratic Action may be playing their own brand of cynical nationalist politics.

Adil Kulenovic, manager of Studio 99 - an independent Sarajevo radio station that held a live call-in show Saturday where most residents condemned the pact - warns that Izetbegovic is playing to Muslim fundamentalists and embittered Muslim victims of ethnic cleansing who no longer want a multiethnic state. Creating two states, he says, will create two religious-oriented, one-party societies in Bosnia that could fight again in the future.

Meanwhile, some movement of Bosnian Serb heavy weapons was seen Saturday night, but UN officials say it is unclear whether the weapons were being removed from the 12-mile Sarajevo exclusion zone.

The UN is on the defensive after shells fired by its new Rapid Reaction Force apparently hit a Bosnian Serb hospital near Sarajevo Friday. Bosnian Serb officials say 10 civilians were killed and more than 22 others were injured. The UN says a Bosnian Serb soldier fired a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile at a NATO airplane 800 yards from the hospital, leading the UN to retaliate.

Despite a NATO bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian president has few military options. While Western media spoke of a resurgent Bosnian Army this spring, UN officials now say that the poorly equipped Bosnian Army had more than 2,000 casualties in an offensive north of the central Bosnian city of Travnik in April and several thousand casualties during a failed offensive to break the siege of Sarajevo in June.

Even if the proposal by Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas for the US to unilaterally lift the UN arms embargo against Bosnia is enacted, it will take at least six months for the Bosnian Army to receive the weapons and learn to use them.

Izetbegovic is vowing that he will not give up one inch of the 15 percent of Bosnia he now controls, but Western observers say the Bosnian Serbs are intent on getting Gorazde and widening a three-mile-wide corridor near the town of Brcko, in northern Bosnia, that links Serb-held territories in eastern and western Bosnia. The Bosnian government is also demanding a unified Sarajevo, while Bosnian Serb leaders say they have no intention of giving up Serb-held parts of Sarajevo populated by over 100,000 people.

Even if a final peace deal is signed, Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic may refuse to enact it - just as he is refusing to follow orders from Bosnian Serb civilian leaders to remove heavy weapons from around Sarajevo. Getting thousands of Serbs and Muslims to engage in voluntary ethnic cleansing and abandon villages traded away in a peace deal may be improbable, if not impossible.

"The last time Izetbegovic left Sarajevo, half the Army said, 'If you don't sign a peace deal, we'll shoot you,' " joked a Sarajevo book store owner. "And the other half said, 'If you do sign a peace deal, we'll shoot you.' "

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.