New diplomatic push on Bosnia as tensions worsen

European Union and United States diplomats bring together Bosnian politicians on Thursday to seek a solution to deepening ethnic divisions that are blocking key reforms in what some see as the last unfinished corner of the Balkans.

Officials at EU headquarters in Brussels and in EU rotating president Sweden are leading the latest diplomatic effort aimed at calming ever more bitter tensions ahead of 2010 elections.

”Everyone agrees that if this is not done by the end of the year, then forget it; you have elections next year,” said Raffi Gregorian, deputy high representative in an international protectorate office whose chief has the power to fire local officials or overturn laws.

Bosnia holds national elections in October 2010. Past election years have shown increased appeals to nationalist interests and radical views that could hamper any settlement.

Bosnia’s Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats fought in Europe’s worst conflict since World War Two from 1992 to 1995, in which 100 000 people died. The country is divided into two rival, predominantly Serb and Muslim-Croat halves.

Just on Sunday one soccer fan was killed and dozens were injured in an area where relations between Bosniaks and Croats are tense.

If not contained, tensions in Bosnia could slow EU and Nato integration for the entire emerging Balkans and deter foreign investors, badly needed because the worldwide economic recession has had a major impact on the region.

”Things have been getting worse. If this trend does not stop, it will lead to conflict, it is just a question of when,” said Sulejman Tihic, head of the largest Muslim political party. ”This [the talks] is a big chance that we must not miss,” he said.

Military base talks
Tihic is one of a small group of political leaders due to meet for dinner on Thursday and talks on Friday, hosted by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who was Bosnia’s first high representative, and US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.

Dragan Cavic, a Bosnian Serb opposition leader, said he would skip the talks because of political pressure and negative perception among the Bosnian Serbs of the internationally run negotiations at a military base next to Sarajevo airport.

”The way the talks have been envisaged — at a military camp under authority of the European Union force, outside Bosnia’s legal institutions and under international supervision — can hardly guarantee success,” Bosnian Serb Nebojsa Radmanovic, one the country’s three presidents, told Reuters.

The diplomats, joined by EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, will present a proposal to fulfill conditions to close the Office of the High Representative (OHR), through which the international community still has ultimate say in the country.

The proposal would also seek Bosnian constitutional reforms and other compromises and offer in turn a faster pace of visa liberalisation and a quicker path to EU and Nato membership, diplomats say.

Many countries are divided over Bosnia’s future and whether, as Sweden and Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik suggest, the OHR should be closed down as soon as possible.

The final decision on the issue is expected in November and opponents of the OHR closure say it could worsen tensions and reward Dodik’s assertive push for more autonomy.

William Montgomery, a former US ambassador to Croatia and Serbia, said the solution to Bosnia’s problems may be allowing the Serb Republic to be independent after careful negotiations and agreement. In public, few agree with this view.

Bosniak leaders such as Tihic say that Bosnian Serb moves towards independence could spark a new war. — Reuters

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