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Foreigners Get Tough With Bosnians

February 4, 1998

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Last month, it was the new national currency. On Wednesday, the flag that Bosnia’s team will bear at the Winter Olympics.

Unable to get Bosnia’s feuding ethnic groups to decide on issues as basic as what the country’s money should look like, outside mediators are making the decisions for them. The world can’t wait, the foreigners say, for Muslims, Croats and Serbs to agree.

Behind the new determination is a realization that 1998 is a make-or-break year for the U.S.-led, billion-dollar effort to rebuild Bosnia.

If the ethnic nationalists who led Bosnia to war and still dominate are not weakened or driven from power in elections next September, then _ the feeling goes _ a united Bosnia will be beyond reach.

1998 should be ``a year ... in which this country begins to change,″ NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana insisted during a visit to Bosnia last week.

Two years after the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace plan, Bosnia still largely operates as separate countries controlled by nationalist Serbs, Croats and Muslims who can’t seem to agree on much of anything.

So in December, the world changed tack and empowered Carlos Westendorp, the top international official in Bosnia, to take matters into his own hands.

In January, Westendorp decreed the name and design of a new common currency that will be tied to the German mark. The currency, prosaically called the convertible mark, is to go into circulation in spring.

On Wednesday, after Bosnians missed their last chance to agree on a flag, Westendorp decreed a dark blue banner with a yellow triangle to symbolize the three ethnic groups. One side of the triangle will be lined with white stars.

``This is the flag of the future,″ said Duncan Bullivant, spokesman for Westendorp. ``It represents unity, not division.″

While the diplomats may seem to be creating a Bosnia without asking the Bosnians, their hunch is that only hard-line leaders gain from further delay.

Ordinary Bosnians on all sides, they argue, are fed up with discord and want a functioning country so they can enjoy homes, schools and jobs.

Only 400,000 of the war’s 1.5 million refugees are back home _ and only 35,000 of those in areas run by wartime foes.

``Our `great’ politicians didn’t do anything for this country, just for themselves. We ordinary people cannot wait any longer. Thank God somebody in the world understands that.″ said Hazim Alihodzic, 48, a worker in the predominantly Muslim northern town of Tuzla.

However in Pale, the stronghold of Serb nationalists, Westendorp’s choice of a flag got little applause.

``This is no good,″ said Milan Jovanovic, 60. ``They are forcing us into a joint state.″

But there’s another reason for the foreign haste. Donors are getting tired of pouring money into Bosnia.

The NATO-led peace force is expected to decrease soon although President Clinton, who visited Bosnia in December, suggested an indefinite stay for U.S. troops.

Outsiders are heartened by the success of Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic in her fight against war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic.

Her effort paid off led last Saturday when Milorad Dodik, a moderate businessman who opposed wartime’s ethnic purges, was sworn in as Bosnian Serb prime minister.

One of his first acts was to agree to common license plates across the country.

And his first visit abroad Wednesday was to Germany, which like Washington already has promised him copious aid _ in hopes the Bosnian Serbs, too, will yield to the promise of a normal life.

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