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The long view: Elusive reconciliation in Bosnia

Posted on Monday, 21 September 2009 00:00

Fifteen years on from the end of the war that saw the former Yugoslavia

disintegrate, there seems little hope of long-term agreement between

Bosnia’s quarrelling groups

The uncomfortable political entity known as Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing its worst political and economic crisis since the end of the 1992-1995 war, which left 100,000 dead and more than 1m internally displaced. The country’s three ruling ethno-nationalist leaders continue with their wartime rhetoric and the international community remains at a loss over how to deal with the country. As the Balkans is not a US foreign policy priority, European nations have taken over the role of overseeing development and reform on the road towards EU enlargement. But views differ within the EU over the future of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia, which since the war has supervised peace implementation and reform. The US and most European countries believe the OHR should remain, as its closure could lead to further destabilisation, but some are advocating its closure, saying Bosnia should be left to its own devices.??

The OHR was scheduled for closure two years ago, but the worsening political crisis and growing security concerns forced a delay. Its closure now could have dire consequences and lead to the formalised partition of the country along ethnic lines. Under the Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the war, Bosnia was carved into two separate entities, the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Bosniak and Bosnian Croat-dominated Federation.

In early 2006, the international community experimented with handing over decision-making powers to local leaders. This failed miserably. Politicians were unable to make any progress on reform and voters chose nationalist parties once again in the polls.

Previous High Representatives relied too heavily on their powers to force through legislation and sack local officials for fomenting ethnic discord and obstructing reform. They imposed hundreds of laws that would otherwise not have been passed by the government. Only two High Representatives – German diplomat Christian Schwarz-Schilling and Slovak Miroslav Lajcak – chose not to wield their powers. However, this hands-off approach then led to a stark regression in development.

Ethnic rhetoric keeps the nationalist politicians in power and is guaranteed to win votes; nationalist campaigns have centred on further dividing the country along ethnic lines. Bosniaks are demanding the dissolution of the Republika Srpska, claiming it was created on a foundation of wartime genocide. Serb leaders are threatening to hold a referendum on seceding from Bosnia and joining Serbia. Croats are watching from a distance, hoping for their own, third, entity with closer ties to Croatia.?

The pattern for the past 14 years has been a rise in ethnic tensions ahead of each election, followed by a clear softening of tone afterwards once the nationalists have cemented power and are forced to form coalitions with so-called enemies. Bosnian Serb officials have recently been rebelling against the international community’s efforts to return some important powers to the state that were previously enjoyed by the different entity governments.

Bosnia continues to break every deadline to start EU accession negotiations. The latest failure came in mid-July, when the European Commission left Bosnia (along with Kosovo and Albania) out of its visa liberalisation process, which included Serbia and Macedonia.

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