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Bosnian Serb Leader Riding Wave of Discontent

Politics: Constituents fed up with corruption are helping President Biljana Plavsic wrest power from her truculent predecessor.


PRIJEDOR, Bosnia-Herzegovina — There are at least two things in this city with a notorious reputation that help explain the success of Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic in her U.S.-backed campaign to sideline her predecessor, Radovan Karadzic.

First, the pro-Karadzic mayor and police chief of Prijedor and several like-minded police commanders vanished a few weeks ago, after NATO forces turned up the heat on suspected war criminals.

And second are the calluses on Mile Mutic's hands.

Mutic, 53, is a high school teacher who has been forced to farm a small plot just to survive. He considers himself a good Serb, loyal to his nation. But he says corrupt leaders under the direction of Karadzic have driven the Bosnian Serb republic--the Republika Srpska--to ruin, plunging the region deeper into isolation and economic stagnation. Salaries are months late, factories are idle, borders are sealed to average people, and few can afford meat. Instead, professionals are among the vast majority who eat what they manage to grow in garden patches in this scruffy city.

"Most people here live this way," Mutic said.

Disgruntled people such as Mutic are the backbone of Plavsic's steady assault on the previously unassailable power held by Karadzic. With backing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Plavsic's forces are gaining control of the densely populated northern swath of the Republika Srpska, from Prijedor in the northwest through her headquarters city of Banja Luka, the Serbs' largest, to the east.

Police, politicians, journalists and army officers in this area have joined her cause, eroding the pillars of Karadzic's authoritarian rule.

But elsewhere, the balance of power is still very much in play.

With NATO efforts to install sympathetic police commanders blocked by Karadzic forces, that means the fates of cities farther to the east--Bijeljina, Doboj, Brcko--are unresolved, leading to an effective split in the Bosnian Serb half of the country that many Serbs believe will be catastrophic for their future by diluting their already depleted numbers.

On Monday near Bijeljina, hundreds of pro-Karadzic Serbs surrounded U.S. troops who had seized a television transmitter. After driving off two bands of armed men last week, the American troops switched off the broadcast of Karadzic-run television, which has fomented violence against Westerners and attacked Plavsic.


Angry Serbs, led by men with walkie-talkies, returned Monday and pelted the heavily armed U.S. soldiers with rocks as American helicopters hovered above. A tense standoff continued late Monday.

In Brcko, where similar violence erupted last week, pro-Plavsic police whom NATO attempted to install last week have been arrested by Karadzic forces, sources said Monday, in another setback for both Plavsic and her American backers.

In contrast, Plavsic appears to have won Prijedor, a city whose name became synonymous with brutal expulsions and killings of Muslims and Croats during the 3 1/2-year Bosnian war. It was the site of detention camps that produced the first war-crimes trial to emerge from the war.

Inroads could be made in Prijedor because the mayor, Milomir Stakic, the police chief and others dropped out of sight. Installed by the Karadzic hard-liners, they left the city in July after British troops killed their comrade Simo Drljaca, a former police commander and indicted war crimes suspect who was allegedly attempting to elude NATO arrest. Milan Kovacevic, director of the Prijedor hospital, was arrested by the British on the same day Drljaca was killed and will face trial before an international war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

With key hard-liners out of the way, the police and a large faction from within Karadzic's ruling party, the Serbian Democratic Party, have joined Plavsic. In a gesture that until now would have been unimaginable in Prijedor, residents said that posters of Karadzic are being removed from city walls.

"People in Prijedor are starting to think with their own heads," said Mirko Brkic, an economist with the Prijedor chapter of the opposition Democratic Patriotic Party.

But in the town of Doboj, 50 miles east of Banja Luka, a band of about 30 Plavsic supporters seized the television transmitter last week but was forced to surrender it to police answering to Karadzic. The leader, a charismatic opposition newspaper publisher and former army commander, has been jailed.

"People are not informed, [they are] 'disinformed' and scared," said Milovan Stankovic, the now-jailed crusader. "Give them a couple of days watching objective television and you will see a change when people start to breathe freely."

He said he believed Doboj was at a turning point.

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