It is a strange struggle over television broadcast towers, police barracks, and other “strategic” sites, almost a comic opera of muscle-flexing and over-blown rhetoric - except that the fragile peace of this war-weary semi-nation hangs so precariously in the balance.
And except that the United States may be dragged into a struggle that threatens to explode into renewed warfare in the blink of an eye.
The latest round of hostilities in Bosnia, so far, involves only hurled stones, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, and the occasional bomb blast ripping the night in Brcko, Banja Luka, Doboj, and other ethnic Serb enclaves across the north. But the stakes are for real in this republic that is not really a republic in a country that is barely a country at all.
Several hundred American troops - part of a larger NATO peacekeeping force - hunkered down in their Bradley fighting vehicles in the Serb enclaves are today all that is preventing parts of Bosnia from another horrific slide into chaos and slaughter.
This time, the hostilities pit Serb against Serb, with the ultranationalist backers of war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic rallying against the nearly powerless regime of Biljana Plavsic, president of the Serb Republic, which is itself just a semi-autonomus region of Bosnia controlled by that ethnic group.
American forces are increasingly becoming the target of Serb rage and aggression. From behind barricades of coiled razor wire, the young U.S. men and women look out at the gathering mobs, stunned by their fury.
“People don’t seem to understand we’re not the enemy,” said Pfc. Lawrence Carter, 25, of Gardiner, Maine, commended for bravery last week after helping tame a rioting mob of Serbs loyal to Karadzic. The U.S. troops used minimal force - tear gas and a few shots in the air - to turn back a much larger mob wielding steel bars and fire bombs.
“All we’re here to do is give peace a chance,” said Carter.
But chances for a permanent peace in Bosnia are perhaps now more in doubt than at any time since the 1995 U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accord ended a savage conflict between Serbs and the Muslim majority in this fractured state in the former Yugoslavia. Bosnia has been subdivided between the Muslim-dominated Bosnia Federation and the so-called Serb Republic.
Plavsic is little more than a figurehead and her republic is more a notion than a nation. It controls neither military forces nor the economy - and the president is afraid to venture more than a block or two from her official residence in the city of Banja Luka.
But she has the support of the NATO peacekeeping force, which is all that has prevented supporters of Karadzic - who faces charges of committing genocide against Muslims during the 4-year civil war - from grabbing political control of the region, a move that could reignite ethnic war.
A string of small bomb attacks heightened tensions in Serb enclaves Saturday as America’s special envoy to Bosnia, Robert Gelbard, arrived in the country for a round of high-level talks He visited Sarajevo and - in a move meant as a show of determination - drove into Pale, Karadzic’s mountain stronghold.
After the visit, he told reporters that he informed Karadzic’s aide, Momcilo Krajisnik, that Karadzic and his followers must implement the 1995 accords, allow the rule of law and pluralist democracy.
“I warned him in most serious terms that there is a need right now to change behavior, or the consequences will be the most serious imaginable,” Gelbard said.
The meetings occurred just two days after an angry Bosnian Serb crowd attacked U.S. soldiers in the northeast town of Brcko when the troops of the NATO-led Stabilization Force, also known as SFOR, tried to oust hard-liners from command of a police station.
Two soldiers were injured, one seriously, and the local offices of the U.N.’s unarmed international police in the town were ransacked and dozens of their vehicles destroyed.
Gelbard blamed Bosnian Serb hard-liners for rising tensions in the so-called Republika Srpska, the name given Serb-controlled zones in Bosnia. There is deep concern that violent attacks against the Plavsic government will wreck the fragile peace.
NATO issued a similar warning after ambassadors from the 16-member military alliance met in Brussels on Friday to review the worsening security situation, including attacks on Western peacekeeping troops.
“SFOR will not hesitate to take the necessary measures, including the use of force,” NATO declared in an official statement.
Without the NATO forces, Plavsic would be gone overnight. Her defense force consists of a few hundred loyal police and a handful of generals.
Although her rival, Karadzic, is despised internationally as a mass murderer, the psychiatrist-turned-nationalist leader is beloved by huge numbers of Bosnia Serbs, probably the majority. He resides more or less openly in his tiny “capital” of Pale, just outside Sarajevo, and controls strategic television and broadcast radio facilities.
Day after day, these stations air hate-filled diatribes against the Plavsic regime, accusing the president of plotting with Muslims against her own people, even though her credentials as a hard-core Serb nationalist are much the same as Karadzic’s own.
“She is perhaps only the less of two evils, but, when you look at Dr. Karadzic, it’s easy to see that is quite a bit less,” said a high-ranking Western diplomat in Sarajevo.