Fragile peace taking root in Bosnia Western officials trying to nurture government

January 22, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SARAJEVO, Bosnia -- Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, some of the most contentious elements in Bosnian peacemaking are starting to fall into place.

The seating of a new, apparently cooperative Bosnian Serb government and a move by international mediators to impose decisions when no one agrees have given impetus to a 2-year-old peace process stalled frequently by separatist bickering.

Yesterday, Western mediators unveiled a common currency that they have ordered Muslims, Serbs and Croats to accept. Shared license plates and a flag are on the horizon.

These trappings are meant to unify the country but were vehemently resisted by a Bosnian Serb leadership dominated by supporters of war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic.

Western officials believe Karadzic and fellow hard-liners have been dealt a significant setback with the selection Sunday of a moderate prime minister for the Bosnian Serb half of this country. The new government under Prime Minister Milorad Dodik excludes Karadzic's party for the first time.

Even as Karadzic supporters vowed to set up a parallel government, U.S. officials asserted the success of their policy of promoting moderates in Bosnia while forcing hard-liners to the margin.

Washington and its European allies have invested millions of dollars in the past six months to back Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic in her power struggle with Karadzic, the former president.

But several key Cabinet members in the Dodik government have wartime records that raise questions about their commitment to reconciliation and reform.

Of more immediate concern to mediators, the new government is fragile. It was elected only after the largest political party in the Bosnian Serb Parliament, Karadzic's Serbian Democratic Party, and its ally, the Serbian Radial Party, stormed out of the session.

That left a thin majority made up of Plavsic's party, the former Communist Socialist Party and a coalition of Muslims and Croats representing expelled minorities.

Western officials are intensifying efforts to shore up the shaky foundations of the government. NATO dispatched extra patrols early in the week to prevent violence, and senior international officials took up residence in Plavsic's headquarters city of Banja Luka.

"The entire focus now is on that one issue: keeping this government afloat," said one Western official in Sarajevo. "Just one angry Muslim, just one [disgruntled] Socialist, and it falls apart."

The hard-liners contend that the Dodik government was elected illegally in a virtual coup. They refused to recognize its decisions, told their officials at the municipal level to do the same and said they would hold their own Parliament session Saturday to compete with one planned by the faction loyal to Plavsic and Dodik.

Pub Date: 1/22/98

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