Last week saw a lot of journalists in Sarajevo for the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war. They tended to emphasize the downside: persistent ethnic division and tension. Tim Judah, who has never stopped going to Bosnia, sees the glass as half full, or better.
This is especially true for the northeastern Bosnian town of Brčko and the surrounding “district” (population about 80,000), the object of many bad wartime jokes about the need for a humanitarian shipment of vowels. It was the site of terrible atrocities at the beginning of the war and much skirmishing nearby during it, due to its strategic position in the narrow corridor linking the two wings of what is now Republika Srpska (RS), the Serb-dominated 49% of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territory.
Brčko was the hard nut that could not be cracked at Dayton, so it became the subject of a post-war arbitration process and American-led “supervision,” which provided decisions on issues the local politicians found too difficult and ensured more inclusive power-sharing arrangements than they would have concluded on their own. A U.S.-led arbitral tribunal decided in 1999 that Brčko would belong to both the RS and the Federation, which controls the other 51% of Bosnia’s territory. This really meant it belonged to neither. International supervision has gradually eased off, and later this spring the assembled powers that still guide the Dayton peace process (the Peace Implementation Council) will consider whether to end it. They likely will keep in place the arbitral tribunal, which decides the larger strategic questions concerning Brčko’s status (now formalized in the Bosnian constitution).
Things are far from perfect in Brčko–I am told it is still governed under an ethnic “key” that gets down to the level of interns and even its hotels sport ethnic identity–but its children go to more integrated schools than in the rest of Bosnia and power is shared in a way that each of the three ethnic groups seems to accept. The place has gone from the nut that couldn’t be cracked to the glue that holds Bosnia together. The RS cannot hope to leave Bosnia unless it controls Brčko. Federation control would spell the end of RS. Brčko District has to remain distinct.
This makes the end of supervision a more delicate moment than would otherwise be the case. The European Union, some of whose more powerful members are anxious to get rid not only of Brčko supervision but also the High Representative who oversees Dayton implementation, would be wise to take notice. The EU still has troops stationed in Bosnia but spread around the country in militarily insignificant contingents. Better to concentrate them in Brčko, thus signaling to both Bosniaks (Bosnia’s Muslims) and Serbs that no effort to “take” Brčko will be tolerated. Such a move might also satisfy Turkey, which supplies a good number of the troops and has hesitated to end Brčko supervision.
Some will argue that no one is prepared to start a war, so why is EUFOR (the European force) needed at all? Certainly neither Croatia nor Serbia, the neighbors most inclined towards war in the 1990s, is interested in blotting their EU copybook by trying to gain territory in Bosnia. Milorad Dodik, the RS president, wants independence and says so repeatedly, but Serbia won’t back him. He can gain more by cooperation with the EU on membership than he can by going to war. Zagreb is disinclined to support Bosnian Croat pretensions, since Croatia is scheduled for EU membership next year.
The Bosniaks, so unprepared for war in 1992, are another question. It should not be assumed that they will be as passive as they were 20 years ago. A serious Dodik move toward de jure independence would provoke some Bosniaks to violence. Taking and holding Brčko would be vital to prevent RS from leaving Bosnia.
If the EU wants the Americans and the Bosnians to take it seriously, it will concentrate its remaining forces in Brčko District, signaling to all concerned that Bosnia will not be allowed to fall apart, or fall into conflict. The move would also help convince the Americans that the Europeans know what they are doing. We’ve all learned to do without the vowels. Brčko needs EU forces.