EU backs reform in Bosnia amid fears over stability and Russian sway

Top EU officials end six-nation Balkan tour of would-be members

The president of Kosovo’s parliament, Kadri Veseli, welcomes Jean-Claude Juncker during  the European Commission  president’s visit to Pristina in Kosovo on Wednesday. Photograph: Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

The president of Kosovo’s parliament, Kadri Veseli, welcomes Jean-Claude Juncker during the European Commission president’s visit to Pristina in Kosovo on Wednesday. Photograph: Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA

 

Top European Union officials have told Bosnia’s leaders to heal its ethnic rifts, strengthen its economy and rule of law and agree on election reform if they want to accelerate towards eventual membership of the bloc.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn visited Bosnia and Kosovo on Wednesday on the final leg of a tour of six western Balkan states.

The officials used the trip to reinforce key messages from an EU enlargement strategy for the region that was unveiled last month – that no country will be allowed to join without enacting major democratic change and resolving ethnic and regional disputes that linger from the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.

“We cannot import instability . . . Democracy does not exist without compromise,” Mr Juncker told Bosnian leaders in Sarajevo.

“It requires joint efforts for a state to become a member . . . When there are differences it leads to paralysis, it leads to delays.”

Deeply dysfunctional Bosnia is still run in line with the Dayton peace agreement of 1995, which divided it into two entities, Serb-run Republika Srpska and a Muslim-Croat Federation, with the latter then subdivided into 10 cantons.

The system generates vast numbers of state employees, reams of red tape and makes swift decision-making almost impossible, especially given continuing mistrust between ethnic groups and rampant cronyism and corruption.

Secession

The EU and United States have long advocated deeper integration in Bosnia, but Republika Srpska’s leaders in particular have refused to hand over functions to Sarajevo and frequently challenge its authority on a host of issues.

Nationalist Bosnian Serb president Milorad Dodik frequently threatens to seek secession rather than transfer powers to Bosnia’s central authorities.

Concern over Mr Dodik’s rhetoric has increased in recent months, with reports that a Serb nationalist paramilitary group called Serbian Honour is operating in Republika Srpska with his approval, and an announcement that the region’s police would soon receive 2,500 new automatic rifles from Serbia.

“They took away our army, they won’t do it with our police,” local media quoted Mr Dodik as saying last month.

Analysts fear that Mr Dodik, who denies corruption allegations, could seek to destabilise Bosnia if he and his party faced defeat in elections this October.

He is a regular visitor to Moscow, and recent unconfirmed reports have said that Russian trainers may work with Bosnian Serb police at a new training centre in Republika Srpska.

After Montenegro joined Nato last year and Macedonia overcame a long-running political crisis, Republika Srpska is now seen as one part of former Yugoslavia where Moscow still has a foothold and potential to project influence.

Macedonia is now trying to end a 27-year dispute with Greece, which says its own region of the same name should have the sole right to use that moniker.

Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev said this week that the leading compromise options were Republic of North Macedonia, Republic of Upper Macedonia, Republic of Vardar Macedonia and Republic of Macedonia (Skopje). The country’s capital is Skopje, and it sits on the Vardar river.