Blow-up in Brčko
One newspaper said the situation in Bosnia-Hercegovina's northeast corner this week was "like we haven't seen since during the wars in Croatia and BiH." This exaggeration still did not stop the Brčko District Assembly from cancelling classes at three high schools in the town Friday in response to the past few days of student protests there. Hundreds of Serb high school students have taken to the streets (some with their families), saying that they will no longer share their school building with Bosniak students.
The same protesters have also been responsible for smashing store windows, wrecking the Baptist church in Brčko's center and attacking a private house where some American workers were staying. As of Friday, the reports said US soldiers were manning a barricade outside the town. Brčko District Assembly Speaker Mirsad Đapo told BH TV Thursday that the protests are being orchestrated by nationalists fighting the Brčko District's multi-ethnic character.
Brčko is a unique area in BiH. It is a multi-ethnic district that does not belong to either the Republika Srpska or the Federation of BiH, and has been quiet since it was established in March of this year. Since the war, the town has had a Serb majority, but Bosniaks have begun returning to the area to live in what many Westerners called "an example for the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina" at the District's inauguration ceremony last spring.
Now, the Brčko District could scarcely be called an example for anything except chaos and, as the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje called it, "rebel youths." Another paper called the protests "well-organised and politically-orchestrated wildness." BH TV's broadcast on Thursday night showed police trying to hold back crowds of shouting teenagers waving skull-and-crossbones flags and flashing the three-fingered Serb salute, but police were unsuccessful and the students poured through their line to run amok through Brčko.
The whole melee started last week when Serb high school students destroyed the area of Brčko Technical School in which the BiH coat-of-arms had been placed. In retaliation, Bosniak students tore up a Republika Srpska flag the school flew outside as per the District's rules. Then, last Friday, a group of Serbs beat up four Bosniak high school students. About 100 Bosniak students protested, with "This is Bosnia" as their dominant message. Serb student protests began Monday, and on Tuesday they were joined by their parents, chanting, "This is Serbia" and "Turks get out."
By Thursday, Večernje Novine was reporting that about 1000 students "destroyed shop windows and other buildings in the town, and everything that looked suspicious to them they pelted with eggs, stones and whatever else was available." The paper also reported hat sources claimed the protesters had thrown eggs at Brčko Deputy Supervisor Gerhard Soltheim, although the Office of the High Representative (OHR) did not have an official statement to make when the paper went to press.
Protesters also turned on journalists, Večernje reported, saying, "the happenings in the Brčko District attracted a number of journalists and photographers, but none of them were immune to assaults from the angry mass of protesters. A contributor to a foreign agency had eggs thrown at him, and another journalist got it even worse—the Serb students pushed him to the ground and took his camera and mobile phone."
The Brčko association of refugees and displaced people said Thursday that the demonstrations were another attempt by extreme nationalist forces to preserve the status quo by manipulating Serb youths. The same day, Đapo told Večernje that the situation in Brčko was not as tense as it had been the day before, but it could escalate. "It's clear that the background of the whole case is of a political nature," he added.
The press largely agrees with Đapo's diagnosis: The Serb Democratic Party (SDS) and their counterparts, the Serb Radical Party (SRS), are organising the demonstrations to the detriment of the District and to stir up trouble that will keep Serb separatists in power in November. The SRS is under suspicion, because the OSCE already banned them from the April municipal elections and because the skull-and-crossbones flag that some students have been waving is the party's symbol.
The question is, who has the most to gain by organising such protests? The SDS, of course. Exploiting local Serbs' fears of Bosniaks (a perhaps laughable situation in light of the ruckus the Serb teenagers have been causing in Brčko this week) is exactly what the SDS could use to get Serbs to vote exclusively for them in the next elections. After all, Milošević is out next door and Federation nationalist parties lost power in the BiH elections in April. The SDS, however, has denied any connection with the protests.
And in other news...
- RS Vice-President Mirko Šarović announced that new FRY President Vojislav Koštunica will be in the southern RS town of Trebinje on 22 October to attend the burial of Serb poet Jovan Dučić, whose remains will be flown in from the United States. BiH Foreign Minister Jadranko Prlić's cabinet stated, "None of us had any contacts either from FRY or from the RS," and is concerned, because all dealings with foreign countries are supposed to originate with the Ministry. It is still unknown whether Koštunica will actually attend the burial. His office in Belgrade was reported to have said that he would like to come if he had time, but that the new president has not made a formal commitment.
- The Croatian Democratic Union wants to hold a BiH Croat referendum sometime between the 4 and 11 November on the Croat people's role in BH. High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch said the referendum has no grounds within the law and that BiH Croats should instead try to use BiH institutions as outlets for any grievances they have.
- The BiH House of Representatives appointed Martin Raguž as the new Council of Ministers Chair, replacing the short-lived Spasoje Tuševljak. At the first session chaired by Raguž, the Council discussed its priorities for the next two months, which are economic and social reforms and sustainable refugee return.
Beth Kampschror, 21 October 2000
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