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Brcko Arbitration
ICG Bosnia Project, 30 August, 1996


The Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) postponed a decision on the fate of the Brcko area, one of the peace talks' most contentious and potentially explosive issues, until arbitration could take place at a later date. That date of reckoning -- December 14 at the latest -- is approaching, and, because Brcko is prized by both Republika Srpska and the Federation, compromise is unlikely. The Bosniak arbitrator, Professor Cazim Sadikovic, Dean of the Sarajevo University Law Faculty, will argue that Brcko town, which is currently held by the Serbs, belongs to the Federation. The Bosnian Serb arbitrator, Dr Vitomir Popovic, will contend that the Serb-held corridor through Brcko is a lifeline for Republika Srpska and should be widened. Roberts Owen, the American lawyer chosen by the International Court of Justice as the presiding arbitrator will attempt to reconcile the two positions. Though the DPA (Annex 2, Article V) states, "The Parties agree to binding arbitration of the disputed portion of the Inter-Entity Boundary Line in the Brcko area indicated on the map attached at the Appendix," no map was included. This means that it is not only the status of Brcko that is in dispute but also the size of the area subject to arbitration.

The arbitration award could have a number of consequences: if the arbitration were to take Brcko town from the Serbs and give it to the Federation, the Bosnian Serbs would lose faith in the DPA, strengthening hard-liners and potentially causing tens of thousands of Serb refugees from western Bosnia to attempt to flee; if the arbitration were to keep Brcko in Serb hands, heightened tension and brinkmanship would likely result in the short term, while a Bosnian Army offensive might be launched in the long term. One possible means to ensure implementation of the arbitrators' decision, as well as the right of refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes, is to establish an internationally administered zone in the contested Brcko area as an interim measure until such time as a more permanent solution can be found.

Why Brcko Matters

Brcko is not just another sad, war-ravaged Bosnian community. It is the nexus of the east-west route linking Banja Luka and other towns in Serb-held western Bosnia with Serbia itself as well as the north-south route linking the industrial centre of Tuzla with Croatia. The Brcko municipality covers 487 sq kms. It had a pre-war population of 87,332; 44% Bosniak, 25.4% Croat, 20.8% Serb and 9.8% others. The town of Brcko and its suburbs covered about a fifth of the municipality's land area; the town was home to 41,000 people, 55% of them Bosniaks, 19% Serb, 7% Croat and 19% others.

The Brcko municipality was one of Bosnia's wealthiest communities. Its main assets were its location a few miles south of the Zagreb-Belgrade highway, the main overland trade route between central Europe and the southern Balkans and its port on the Sava river, the largest river port in Bosnia, which handled all the water-borne imports to and exports from central Bosnia and Tuzla before the war.

After six days of fighting, the Serbs seized the town of Brcko on May 7, 1992. When the battle lines outside the town solidified, the Bosniaks and Croats were left in control of approximately two-thirds of the district and the Serbs held the rest, including the entire town and swathes of land to its east and west. Together these Serb-held areas form the strategic land bridge, or corridor, linking Serb-held areas in western Bosnia and Croatia with Serbia itself.

The Croats and Bosniaks fought the Serbs as allies and joined together in a municipal "government-in-exile" until May 1993 when their unified local military unit split up due to the eruption of fighting between Croatian Defence Council and Bosnian Army forces elsewhere in the republic. However these separate Bosniak and Croat armed forces continued to co-ordinate their military activities and the Bosniak and Croat political leaders continued to participate in the government-in-exile until June 1994, when the Croats created a community they called Ravne Brcko.

The Brcko municipality is now divided into three communities. About a third of the area is under the control of the Republika Srpska leadership in Pale, about a quarter is under the control of the Bosnian government and about another third is Croat Ravne-Brcko. The Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL) between RS and the Federation left within Republika Srpska's jurisdiction about 26 % of the territory claimed by Croat Ravne-Brcko.

The population of Brcko town has fallen from its pre-war total of 41,000 to an estimated 37,000; only about 7,000 Serbs from the pre-war populace have remained. The remaining 30,000 people are Serbs displaced from areas elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including 10,000 to 20,000 former residents of the Sarajevo area, and the Krajina area in Croatia. About 25,000 Bosniaks left Brcko town and moved southward, mostly into villages within the municipality but now in Federation territory. The present Bosniak population is concentrated in a strip running south of Brcko town toward Srebrenik and bounded on the west by a Croat pocket and on the east by a smaller Croat pocket. The size of the Croat population of Brcko is the same as it was before the war, although the Croats of Brcko town are resident in the villages that now form Ravne-Brcko.

Since IFOR's deployment and the reopening of the north-south route through Republika Srpska, business activity has blossomed across the confrontation line. The so-called "Arizona" roadside market is flourishing in the Zone of Separation, several miles west of Brcko town, attracting buyers from all sides. However, IFOR's creation of the demilitarised zone has also sparked a tense battle between the Bosniak and Serb authorities for possession of some 1,000 destroyed houses that lie within that zone. Both sides appear to be attempting to tilt the arbitration in their favour by changing the "facts on the ground."

In three villages inside the zone of separation but on the Serb side of the former confrontation line , Bosniak displaced persons began repairing their destroyed homes. The Serb authorities responded by harassing them, blowing up several of their newly-restored homes, and launching a counter resettlement campaign by promising doors and windows to displaced Serbs who would occupy (mainly Bosniak) homes within the zone. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Gojko Klickovic announced that the Serbs would populate Brcko with as many refugees as possible. When tempers flared, IFOR declared a moratorium on repairs in mid-June. The incidents sparked the intervention of the Office of the High Representative, which resolved the matter by issuing "guiding principles" slowing the pace to a "phased and orderly" return of twenty families per week.

Brcko's future lies in the eye of the beholder:

  • Serb position

    Brcko's strategic military and commercial position make it an area of vital importance for the Serbs who wish to retain exclusive control over cleansed swathes of western Bosnia. As mentioned, the Serb leaders have already tried to pre-empt the arbitration process by working to resettle refugees in the damaged, deserted villages, which had a pre-war Muslim majority, on the southern flanks of the town. Thanks to Serb television and radio and hard-line Pale leaders, Serbs expect the arbitration process to reaffirm their control of Brcko town and to net them land now under Federation control. The official Serb position, articulated most recently by Republika Srpska's acting president Biljana Plavsic, is that arbitration will only concern part of the inter-entity boundary and will focus on widening the Serb-held Brcko corridor from its present 6 kms to 20 kms; it will not involve Brcko town itself. Serb Assembly speaker Momcilo Krajisnik has said that the integrity of Republika Srpska (via Brcko) is more important than peace, indicating that, unless Belgrade intervenes, the Serbs will resist any attempt to alter the status of Brcko town.

    While the Bosnian Serbs make frequent pronouncements about the arbitration, the position of the Yugoslav authorities is less clear. When the Bosnian Serbs refused to help select the third member of the commission, the Yugoslav foreign minister issued a blistering condemnation, expressing its "anger, great concern and regret" over the Serb hard-liners' intransigence and demanding absolute and immediate co-operation.

  • Bosniak position

    Now that the north-south route through Brcko has opened, Bosniaks have a taste of the past, which has been intensified by nostalgic radio news broadcasts. UNHCR says that the federation-controlled part of the Brcko municipality is unique in that all of its 8,000 displaced persons come from Brcko town itself or the Zone of Separation. These displaced persons demand that they be allowed to reclaim their property and cite the Dayton Agreement to back their demands. Though there is some unspoken fear that since the Federation "got" the suburbs of Sarajevo, the Serbs may be "given" Brcko town, the Bosniaks insist that the arbitration should determine the status of Brcko town and not the inter-entity boundary or the width of the corridor. They have expressed a particular interest in the railway line, the roads and the port on the Sava, which the Serbs control and without which the Bosniaks feel isolated and landlocked. The local Bosniaks insist that either Brcko will be placed under Federation control or the Bosnian Army will cut the corridor by force. Bosniak officials say, once they control Brcko town again, they will be happy to provide the Serbs transit access.

  • Croat position

    The Croat leaders of Ravne-Brcko do not trust the ruling elite of Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica (HDZ) in Mostar, which has followed a separatist path since mid-1992 in an effort to merge their home region, Western Herzegovina, with Croatia itself. Members of the Croat leadership of Ravne-Brcko have expressed alarm that they will be swallowed up by the Croat-Bosniak Federation and that their local concerns will be overlooked. The Ravne-Brcko authorities have said that the United Nations should take control of Brcko town so all three ethnic groups can use the area as a cross-roads. For Croats, Brcko could be a key bridge to Croatia itself.

    What Should Be Done

    Short Term: IFOR extension, Repairs, Elections, Police

    Before any arbitration of boundaries can commence, the size of the area to be arbitrated must clearly be defined. In the absence of the map in the Dayton Agreement, the panel of arbitrators should decide. A decision should be reached immediately but an announcement should be postponed until after the elections because, in the light of the Serbs' unrealistic expectations, the mere definition of the area will elicit a fierce backlash and greatly fortify the position of the ruling SDS. Because the Serbs hope the arbitration will be confined to the zone of separation, and because it could stretch as far north as Orasje, the international community should push for arbitration on the entire pre-war Brcko municipality, which would include Serb-held Brcko as well as territory under Federation control. This could be presented as a compromise position: it would give hope to the Bosniaks that a link to the North and the Sava port was still a possibility; it would give the Serbs who have said they will discuss nothing other than a widening of the corridor a face-saving way at least to take a seat at the arbitration table. (Ominously the Serb arbitrator failed to attend the first arbitration meeting, possibly indicating the Serbs' intention not to cooperate with the arbitration. This may suggest they are simply playing for time until elections and if so is a further reason for postponing elections there until after the arbitration. At any event their non-cooperation should not be accepted by the international community.)

    IFOR cannot withdraw from Brcko until the arbitration award has been made. However the present expectation that IFOR will withdraw is destabilising. IFOR personnel in Bosnia, especially those in the Brcko area, should stop commenting on an IFOR withdrawal. An announcement on a successor force should not be delayed until after the US election. The local US Commander, who already hosts constructive, weekly Joint Civilian Commission meetings attended by Croat, Bosniak and Serb representatives, would be likely to make more headway if the local players knew the US presence would not soon vanish.

    International agencies should be careful to award reconstruction assistance only to original owners and to withhold it from displaced persons attempting to stake their claims to "abandoned" property. This will create incentive for rightful returns and disincentives for unlawful occupation of homes in the Zone of Separation. The bi-weekly local commission (which includes UNHCR, IPTF, IFOR and OHR) should not cave in to local Serb harassment and should be prepared, if ongoing economic normalisation progresses and tensions subside, to increase from twenty the number of families allowed to return and repair their homes and should assist present temporary occupants to find alternative accommodation.

    For the purpose of ethnic electoral engineering, there is evidence to show that the Serb authorities have used humanitarian aid as leverage to coax Brcko's large community of displaced Serbs ( about 12,000)to register with the local election committees to change their place of residence and vote in Brcko. Moreover these statistics show that over 31,000 Bosnian Serb refugees living in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have also been persuaded to register to vote in Brcko as their intended place of residence. The registration of these two groups would assure the Serbs a clear majority. This kind of manipulation clearly cannot be tolerated. OSCE's decision to postpone municipal elections throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the wider effect of similar manipulation of voter registrations elsewhere eases the immediate problem in Brcko but still leaves it exposed to future electoral manipulation and to attempts at influencing the outcome of the arbitration by changing the demography. Municipal elections should therefore be put off until after the arbitration. Brcko's critical importance for a long-lasting peace in Bosnia requires a substantial reinforcement of the international civilian police monitors (IPTF) in the town of Brcko.

    Medium to long term: Arbitration

    As the September elections are likely to reinforce the nationalist parties' power, no arbitration decision can satisfy the conflicting territorial claims of both parties. Whether the arbitrators decide in favour of the Serbs, giving the Serbs the corridor but the Bosniak displaced persons the right of return, or in favour of the Bosnian government, giving the Serbs the right to remain and transit, an enforcement mechanism will be needed to break the intransigence. Though Brcko's geographic and commercial position ensures a sort of creeping integration over time, the town's unresolved status now leaves a window for the creation of an international administration. This may be the only viable means of addressing the goals, needs and fears of all sides.

    Since the status quo favours the Serbs, the creation of such an administration would be perceived to favour the Bosniaks, but Eastern Slavonia and Mostar supply two useful precedents. Under the auspices of the UN Transitional Authority in Eastern Slavonia and the leadership of a strong American administrator Jacques Klein -- but thanks principally to Serbia's abandonment and the viable threat of Croatian military force -- the Serb-held territory in Eastern Slavonia looks destined to pass peacefully into Croatian government hands. In Mostar, the two-year European Union Administration has failed to unify the city, despite the presence of a strong administrator and binding powers of arbitration, because Croatia is still actively supporting the separatists and because, unlike the Serbs in Slavonia, Croatian nationalists in the town face no military threat.

    Our proposal would be to put in place an international administration for, say, two years as the first stage in a longer-term settlement. However, in both Slavonia and Mostar the administrations are working towards an end-game: the hand-over of eastern Slavonia to Croatia and the reunification of Mostar. In Brcko too an international administration should have a similar raison d'�tre. This might be a second phase in which the international administration would hand over to a permanent, state-level administration as a sort of open municipality to be enjoyed by both entities equally with guaranteed right of transit through a free economic zone. This would postpone the resolution of the Brcko problem until sometime after the municipal elections proposed for 1998. During the interim "cooling off" period under an international administration economic imperatives and a reduction in social tensions might soften the parties' intransigence. From its inception, such an administration should concentrate on ensuring the return of all displaced persons and refugees by the end of its mandate and before the withdrawal of international forces. (The return of Brcko's displaced Muslims and Croats cannot be organised without taking into account the needs of the new Serb settlers who have nowhere else to go.)

    Since the Dayton Agreement clearly enshrines the right of people to return to their original communities, this principle must be upheld irrespective of the outcome of the arbitration. In the lead-up to the event, clear pronouncements must be made that any decision will mean the return of displaced persons and refugees.


    Because both sides' leaders are creating artificially high expectations for the arbitration, an international security presence will be required regardless of the decision reached. Even if an international administration is not created, the removal or reduction of IFOR should be postponed. The withdrawal of IFOR on 20 December would occur at perhaps the most inopportune moment for Brcko.

    Any internationally administered zone will need a robust security mechanism. The main military component should be American, which would of course mean extending the US ground presence well beyond December 1996. The present US Commander in the area estimates that such a job would require one heavy battalion and one light battalion, or approximately 1,200 troops. It may be valuable to keep the Russian contingent in order to appease the Serbs and to further NATO-Russian co-operation. It may also be wise to bring in a German contingent, an idea at which the Serbs would initially bristle, but which could help change the Serbs' prejudice towards Germany. A clear chain of command between a US civilian administrator and the local US commander would of course need to be articulated.

    Civil policing is a vital issue. The Mostar example shows that a police force without executive powers can do little to confront rampant organised crime and uncooperative extremist politicians. At the outset it should probably be the international military forces that take on policing functions, making the administration in effect a military governorship. But the administrator should also adopt some of the mechanisms developed in Mostar and Eastern Slavonia in order to develop a joint Serb-Bosniak police force. A Western police force, along the lines of the 200-officer West European Union contingent in Mostar, could be attached to the Brcko Administration and draw on lessons learned in Mostar. The international forces should initially control border crossings and customs and security, with a phased hand-over to the local authorities.


    International assistance programs should be developed between now and the beginning of an international administration. The programs should not be seen as a free lunch provided by the international community. If the local inhabitants and businesses are enticed by aid, they will wait for the donors' cumbersome mechanisms to provide the funds. Instead, local entrepreneurs and initiatives should receive backing. By creating a secure environment, the Brcko Administration would increase local investor confidence. Rebuilding the shattered southern suburbs will require an enormous investment, which developers are unlikely to undertake in such a manifestly precarious location without NATO's reassuring presence. With time, the profit motive will make in-roads into the exclusive nationalist agenda which has caused widespread destruction and impoverishment.


    • Probably the quickest and easiest impact could be achieved by turning the present roadside "Arizona market" into a permanent facility by building access roads and putting down paving for stall-holders and their vehicles. Such a market need not occupy the present site but could be set up anywhere nearby, allowing the present market to operate in the interval.

    • By overcoming state opposition and creating a customs- or duty-free zone, the Brcko Administration could encourage trade from Croatia, Serbia, Republika Srpska, and the Federation. People would come to shop simply because goods would be cheaper. They could also buy electronic goods vital for increasing exposure to the outside world: "A chicken in every pot and a satellite dish on every roof."

    • Subsidies for building materials would make wood, bricks, and roofing tiles cheaper in the zone. This would boost physical reconstruction of housing in the zone but also entice others to come and buy. This would be more of a commercial project than humanitarian aid in the traditional sense.

    • Sponsorship of a series of programs on small business development, city and municipality organisation, public company and utility administration etc. (like those in Eastern Slavonia). These forward-thinking, get-yourselves-on-board-for-the-21st-century programs are more likely to find a captive audience in Brcko -- because of its pre-war wealth, its commercial potential and the fact that 8,000 of its occupants are in fact displaced Sarajevans.

    • Resources for the Brcko Joint Civilian Commission (JCC) to fund for local projects. Despite the backing of the Office of the High Representative, which requested $3 million for local Joint Civilian Commissions throughout Bosnia, no money has been set aside.

    Social and cultural aspects

    A range of NGOs can busy themselves with institution building, psycho-social programs, conflict resolution, etc. Such programs are valuable in their own right and also increase contacts between the local populace and non-military international people. Brcko is an ideal spot for a local, independent radio or TV station with the capacity to transmit beyond Brcko to reach neighbouring communities. It should be commercially driven but subsidised if necessary. While local business could run advertisements on their special duty free goods for sale, entertainment (i.e. international films, fortune tellers, former Yugoslav rock groups and interviews) should serve as the real magnet. Particular attention should be paid to positioning the main draws so as to compete directly with nationalist news slots from Pale, Belgrade, or Sarajevo.


    • The Administrator must be an American. This will garner Bosniak confidence and Serb respect. It will also help the US Administration justify an extended US troop presence.

    • The Administrator should have a military background in order to ensure smooth relations between the civilian administrator and US military commander and probably to guarantee that, on the administrator's advice, the military will take a more proactive stance.

    • The Administrator must be a strong character with significant experience in the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This will again generate immediate local trust and respect. Leaders of the EU Administration in Mostar say their learning curve was so steep at the outset that the parties immediately sniffed weakness; they were never able to recover the initiative or respect; and by the time they were ready to tackle robustly local obstructionists, the international focus had shifted and the early momentum had been squandered.

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