LA Times
Bosnian Serbs move to plus column in US' Book

NORMAN KEMPSTER

Friday, March 10, 2000


BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- In a striking change from Washington's wartime sympathies, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised the leadership of the Serb-run half of Bosnia on Thursday, pronouncing it ahead of the rest of the country on political and economic reforms.

With Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik at her side, Albright said moderate forces in Republika Srpska, as the Serbian entity is known, "have been fighting the good fight. . . . They have distanced themselves from [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic."

Albright said Dodik's government, which has supported the 1995 Bosnian peace accords, deserves economic and political support from the United States and the rest of the international community. As a token, she said, Washington will give the regime $7 million to help finance its budget.

"The trend toward privatization is stronger here than elsewhere in the country," Albright said during a day of meetings in this town, which serves as headquarters for the Bosnian Serb entity.

To be sure, that is faint praise because the Muslim-Croat Federation that governs the other half of Bosnia-Herzegovina has done almost nothing to dismantle the state-controlled economy the country inherited from the former Yugoslav federation. But Albright's comments show how much Washington's attitude has changed from the war years, when the Bosnian Serbs--under far different leadership--were considered the aggressor.

Dodik acknowledged that Republika Srpska's privatization effort has been marked by "successes and failures," and hampered by corruption. But he vowed to stamp out graft and make the economic reform process understandable and open to all.

Dodik also assured Albright that Milosevic is no longer calling the shots in the Bosnian Serb entity, as he clearly was during the war. Although Milosevic continues to control some minority political parties, Dodik said his overall influence "is almost insignificant."

He said Bosnian Serbs "are ready to help all democratic efforts to achieve change" in Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic. But he didn't list any specific steps his government is planning to take.

Later, in a meeting with a selected group of Bosnian Serb journalists, Albright expressed frustration at the internal disputes that have sapped the strength of the democratic opposition to Milosevic in Serbia.

"It is important to have an opposition leader--not four of them that disagree with each other," Albright said.

Nevertheless, she said, she had expected the Serbian public to rise up against Milosevic before this. "The hardest thing for us to understand is why the Serb people put up with it. . . . I don't know where the young people are; maybe they've emigrated. . . . Where is the military? Usually, the military is with the people."

Albright acknowledged that the Clinton administration had expected ordinary Serbs to blame Milosevic for the hardships they endured this winter when international sanctions limited imports of heating oil and other fuel.

"I know they are mad at us," she said. "I know people don't like me. But they should blame Milosevic."

Albright also pledged $2 million in American aid to rebuild 200 unoccupied houses in Republika Srpska and Croatia to provide shelter to returning refugees. The U.S. offered the help after the Bosnian Serb government and Croatia, a former Yugoslav republic neighboring Bosnia, issued a new refugee policy intended to facilitate the return of hundreds of thousands of people who remain displaced more than four years after Bosnia's war ended.

The declaration gives the prewar owners of a house the right to reclaim it even if it is being occupied by someone else. It also allows refugees who prefer to remain where they are now to do so.

The policy primarily affects ethnic Serbs displaced from the Krajina region of Croatia who are now in Republika Srpska and ethnic Croats driven out of towns and villages in the Bosnian Serb entity who are now in Croatia.



Original article