Last-ditch effort to drag Bosnia out of the mire

ANALYSIS : Tensions are running high in Bosnia where today, EU and US diplomats will try to make progress towards a more durable…

ANALYSIS: Tensions are running high in Bosnia where today, EU and US diplomats will try to make progress towards a more durable peace in the region, writes DAN M cLAUGHLIN

WHILE MOST of the Balkans hailed Ireland’s Yes vote on the Lisbon Treaty as a boost to prospects for further European Union expansion, one former Yugoslav republic had more pressing matters to address.

Croatia hopes to join the EU in 2011, citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia expect to be granted visa-free travel to the bloc next year, and Kosovo is finding its feet after declaring independence from Belgrade last year.

Bosnia, however, is going backwards.


Senior diplomats from the EU and United States have invited Bosnia’s party leaders to a hastily arranged meeting in Sarajevo today to try and find a way to drag the ethnically-divided country out of its current, poisonous mire and towards eventual EU and Nato-membership.

The rhetoric coming from all sides in the lead-up to the talks gives an indication of their importance, and of the difficulties that they face.

“We now have the situation where the whole region moves ahead towards EU and/or Nato and in this situation it’s extremely dangerous to leave Bosnia behind,” said Lars Wahlund of the foreign ministry of Sweden, current holders of the rotating EU presidency. “Everyone will have to swallow things which they perhaps will not like . . . (but) if they do not compromise, everyone will lose,” he added, ahead of talks that will be led by Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt and US deputy secretary of state James Steinberg.

“The problem is that stagnation over a long period of time has a debilitating effect. In relative terms, the other countries of the region are moving forward, Bosnia is going to be left to the dust,” warned Raffi Gregorian, deputy to Bosnia’s powerful international high representative.

“This is a big chance that we must not miss,” said Sulejman Tihic, the head of the strongest Bosnian-Muslim party, ahead of the meeting. “Things have been getting worse. If this trend does not stop, it will lead to conflict, it is just a question of when.”

The diplomatic muscle of Washington and Brussels faces a stubborn adversary, however – the Bosnian-Serbs.

Some senior Bosnian-Serb politicians have already vowed to boycott the meeting, and others have loudly predicted its failure, while leader Milorad Dodik has made clear that he will not bow to any amount of pressure to strengthen Bosnia as a state if it means weakening his Serb-run region.

“Serbs do not love Bosnia-Hercegovina, they love the Republika Srpska [the self-governing ethnic Serb entity within the larger state of Bosnia-Hercegovina] and are ready to defend it with all democratically allowed means,” he said on the eve of the talks. “Bosnia-Hercegovina is not the main focus of our attention. Our main focus is Republika Srpska and it should be finally understood.”

Bosnia’s woes are partly attributable to the Dayton Accords, the peace deal that ended the 1992-1995 fighting between Bosnia’s Serbs, Muslims and Croats, which killed some 100,000 people.

The pact divided Bosnia into two “entities”, a Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska, with weak and cumbersome central institutions in the capital, Sarajevo, binding them together.

The Muslim-Croat Federation broadly supports western efforts to bolster Sarajevo’s powers and integrate the two entities, but Republika Srpska opposes every major move away from the Dayton agreement and to shift significant power towards the centre and reduce ethnic division.

Many Serbs dread the prospect of a truly united Bosnia ultimately being run by Muslims, or Bosniaks, who comprise about 48 per cent of the country’s 4.6 million people, with Serbs making up about 37 per cent and Croats 14 per cent. They fear discrimination and retribution from their war-time enemies, and the weakening of links with Belgrade and allies like Russia. A fully integrated Bosnia would also mean a diminution of wealth and power for Serb politicians and businessmen.

The lightning rod for much Serb fear and anger is the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international official with the power to impose laws and sack obstructive officials.

The punitive powers of the OHR have most often been used against Serbs – particularly when the office was held by British former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown. Serbs thus see it as a deeply biased instrument of western neo-imperialism which must be abolished immediately.

“The longer the OHR will stay the more problems there will be,” says Dodik, who has threatened to withdraw Serb representatives from central Bosnian institutions – potentially paralysing its political system – unless the high representative stops using his executive powers.

Western powers say they would withdraw the high representative, currently Valentin Inzko, a Slovene-speaking Austrian diplomat, if Bosnia’s leaders show that they could operate smoothly without him. Incentives that could be offered today are replacement of the OHR with an EU office, a road map towards EU and Nato membership and visa liberalisation in return for completion of a set of vital and long-awaited constitutional reforms.

Analysts and moderates on all sides warn, however, that abolition of the OHR before Bosnia is truly stable could lead to disaster. Inzko said this week that Bosnians felt the current mood in the country was the worst since the war.

“Once you get rid of the high representative with his executive powers and the military which supports him, there will be no way for the international community to intervene here,” said Kurt Bassuener of the Democratisation Policy Council think tank. “If we removed these guardians, we may go off the cliff – back to violence.”

Today’s talks will be nothing if not tough. The Bosnian-Serbs have previously threatened to hold a referendum on independence if they don’t get their way and, with elections due next year, all sides are likely to use nationalist rhetoric to secure votes in a country where memories of war are so fresh, and ethnic tension is still so strong.

Dan McLaughlin is based in Budapest and reports on central and eastern Europe for The Irish Times