A glassy-eyed federal soldier staggering over the worn marble paving stones of Mostar’s famed Turkish Bridge reminded Becir Kurasepi of a thorn in independent Bosnia-Herzegovina’s side.
Mostar, a predominantly Muslim city of 100,000 that has been a favorite tourist destination for centuries, has been transformed into a federal army garrison town, and its cozy cafes are now venues for brawling.
“They think they can just come in and take over our city,” grumbled Kurasepi, a Muslim shopkeeper, nodding his tasseled fez toward the uniformed drunk.
Officials in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo put the number of federal troops in their republic at 150,000, or eight times as many as before the Yugoslav war began. There had been no fighting in Bosnia when the federal army dispatched masses of troops here last spring, as the Serbian-commanded force was getting into position for the war in Croatia.
Ethnic Serbs, who comprise about one-third of Bosnia’s 4.4 million people, have resisted independence for the republic and often hinted that the federal troops might move in to back them.
Tensions remain high in the republic, where officials say that--despite some Serbian calls for a boycott of the referendum on the issue--63.4% of the 3.1 million electorate voted over the weekend, giving 99.43% support to Bosnian independence.
Although the army has so far stayed out of sporadic communal clashes like the one that paralyzed Sarajevo earlier this week, many in this multi-ethnic republic are suspicious of the army’s intentions and resent the military intrusion into what used to be placid lives.
Mostar’s narrow streets are filled with gun-toting men in fatigues and camouflage, many of them drunk, whether off duty or on patrol. Rowdy reservists have fired off so much weaponry just for the fun of it that pedestrians have been wounded by falling bullets.
Soldiers are suspected in bombings and attacks that have destroyed several local businesses and are widely resented for flaunting the armed muscle of the federal army that no longer has a federation to defend.
Merchants like Kurasepi complain that the soldiers snatch trinkets without paying for them.
A handful of reservists from the fierce highlands of Montenegro who had taken over a quaint, Croatian-run bar overlooking the bridge not only confirmed the townspeople’s tales of indiscipline but boasted of some of the feats.
Asked about reports that a drunken soldier drove an army jeep over the Turkish Bridge, a narrow arch built high over the Neretva River 400 years ago for pedestrians, the Montenegrins beamed proudly and said the perpetrator was from their home town of Pljevlja. “It was the first time a motorized vehicle ever crossed--and he did it twice!” said a reservist named Nikola.
The local community’s resentment of the pranks and bullying became so strong after the bridge incident in January that European Community monitors stepped in to encourage the army to move to the outskirts of town.
“The top commanders were very sensitive to the argument that the acts of indiscipline were damaging the image of the federal army,” said Colm Doyle, head of the EC monitoring force in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Luca Kukic, a 60-year-old Croatian pensioner, was trying to find a spot for a cup of coffee where there were no soldiers. He complained: “It’s been better since they moved out of the center, but they are still around all the time, shooting, attacking, beating people.”
Now that Bosnia has validated its December declaration of independence with a referendum, the republic is ostensibly severed from the Yugoslav federation, and the soldiers could be considered unwelcome occupiers. But Bosnia’s leaders say the military issue is too volatile for them to demand a pullout of the federal troops.
“We have to be sympathetic to their particular problems, and our approach will be to go about this very carefully, but we will not tolerate their presence here indefinitely,” explained a government minister. “There are 150,000 of them in this republic. They have no other jobs to go to. We have to feed them and give them a place to stay or there could be other problems.”
Aside from the economic questions, Serbian hard-liners in Belgrade have vowed they will not allow an army retreat from the republic that hosts most Yugoslav defense industries, as well as 1.4 million ethnic Serbs. Branko Kostic, the self-appointed president of what is left of Yugoslavia, told a Belgrade newspaper the army will never withdraw.
While the federal troops remained neutral during a short-lived Serbian uprising this week, their huge presence makes people nervous and fearful that they might move to take the militant Serbs’ side.
The Yugoslav People’s Army used to be a multi-ethnic fighting force, gleaned from all six republics and led by the predominantly Serbian high command in Belgrade, which is both the federal and Serbian capital. But the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina has left an ethnically homogenous rank and file of Serbs and the closely related Montenegrins.
Although Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic publicly claims to have abandoned his aim of keeping all Yugoslav Serbs united in a single country, some radicals and federal officers still hold and cherish that goal.
Federal troops fought for rebel Serbs in Croatia throughout eight months of war there that cost 10,000 lives. Fighting has tapered off in Croatia in preparation for a U.N. peacekeeping operation to begin in one week. But many in Bosnia fear that Croatia’s gain could be their loss.
The U.N. deployment plan calls for withdrawal of federal troops from Croatia. If the army complies, most of the soldiers and hardware would have to at least pass through Bosnia.
“They’ll all be coming here, but I don’t think they will stay long,” said Kurasepi, sipping thick Turkish coffee from a thimble-sized cup. “They have no mission here. If I felt I was unwanted and superfluous at this table, I might stay for a while to save face, but I would eventually go away on my own.”