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Brokering Bosnia's Future No Easy Task

  • Heather Maher

Fourteen years after Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Croatia's Franjo Tudjman, and Bosnia's Alija Izetbegovic (left to right) sign the Dayton peace agreement ending the war, Bosnia is still divided ethnically.

Fourteen years after Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Croatia's Franjo Tudjman, and Bosnia's Alija Izetbegovic (left to right) sign the Dayton peace agreement ending the war, Bosnia is still divided ethnically.

Representatives from the 55-member Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the international body tasked with monitoring the fragile peace process in Bosnia-Herzegovina, are meeting in Sarajevo in an attempt to clarify the country's uncertain future.

Specifically, the PIC is due to take stock of Bosnia's steps toward membership in the European Union and NATO. So far, however, there's little progress to discuss.

This autumn has already seen at least three rounds of EU- and U.S.-mediated talks on the subject with representatives from Bosnia's two political entities -- the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. But none has succeeded in agreeing on a set of objectives and conditions the international community believes is needed to prepare the country for membership in the Western clubs.

Those objectives -- the so-called "5+2" package, for five goals and two conditions -- focus on issues like the distribution of state and military property between Bosnia's government entities, fiscal sustainability, and measurable improvement in the country's political situation.

International mediators say that meeting the 5+2 objectives would allow Bosnia to take the first key step toward political autonomy and Western integration -- closing the Office of the High Representative (OHR).

The OHR is an international post tasked with monitoring Bosnia's peace process under the terms of the Dayton peace agreement, which was forged on November 21, 1995.

The Dayton accords, which brought an end to the Bosnia's brutal 1992-95 war, created the OHR as a temporary post to oversee the country's political development until the country was deemed stable enough to run itself.

Finding A Way Forward

Still operating 14 years later, the OHR -- currently held by Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko -- is resented by many within Bosnia. The international community is in general agreement that the long-term goal should be to dissolve the post.

But getting Bosnia's fractious authorities to work together on meeting the international community's conditions has proved nearly impossible.

Representatives of the three main ethnic groups -- Serbs, Muslims (Bosniak), and Croats -- rejected the last compromise proposal offered by EU and U.S. negotiators.

A senior U.S. diplomat who has been involved in the negotiations and is taking part in this week's Sarajevo meeting says the United States plans to "take stock" of where things stand. Deputy Assistant Secretary Stuart Jones told RFE/RL ahead of the meeting that where some see a stalemate, he sees reason for optimism.

"I don't want to prejudge how that meeting might go -- the PIC has many members and ranges of views -- but I think we are making headway in our conversations with the party leaders," Jones said

"There seems to be a high level of engagement with us on the substance of our proposal, and so I hope that we will continue to move forward in a way that produces results."

Asked where he sees that headway, Jones said negotiators have had several meetings with political party leaders and experts on constitutional reform and division of state property. He said those meetings featured "fruitful conversations" and "good exchanges."

Bosnian Serb Reluctance

But Jones acknowledged that, going into the Peace Implementation Council meeting this week, there was no agreement on either of those key issues.

Among Bosnia's three ethnic groups, the stiffest resistance to international attempts to broker a compromise has come from the Bosnian Serbs.

Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Republika Srpska, staunchly opposes any proposal seen as blocking his entity's drive for greater autonomy.

Dodik, whose political loyalties lie with Serbia rather than Bosnia, has routinely threatened to call a referendum on the right of the Republika Srpska to secede from Bosnia. He has also been the most vocal opponent of the OHR, and is grudgingly attending the current PIC meeting, saying it will be his "last."

Deputy Assistant Secretary Jones, however, rejected the notion that the Republika Srpska is blocking a deal. He said he is "encouraged by the way that the parties are engaging" -- including the Bosnian Serbs.

"We've had constructive meetings in Banja Luka and in Sarajevo in recent weeks and -- I'm not going to outline their position, and I'm not going to say that we are in agreement, or that they have accepted the package. That's not what I'm saying," Jones said.

"But certainly we've had very good substantive and constructive conversations."

Representatives of Dodik's government recently traveled to Washington to make the case to members of the U.S. Congress that talks on constitutional reform are premature, and that the OHR should be closed immediately so that Bosnia can work out its differences internally.

But the United States believes that "for OHR transition, the 5+2 criteria must be fully met. Full stop," Jones said.

"We are also saying that Bosnia needs to undertake constitutional reform in order to be able to present a credible application both for membership in the European Union, and also in the [NATO] Membership Action Plan," he added. "And that is exactly what we are encouraging."

He did seem to acknowledge that that position could change, depending on what the other members of the PIC say this week.

"We, the United States, and our European Union partners, are fully prepared to continue to engage with the parties," Jones said. "At the Peace Implementation Council meeting we will take stock, but if the parties continue to be engaged with us, as all of them are, then I think we would be willing to continue a bit further to see if we can't find agreement."

U.S. Sense Of Urgency

But Bosnia's national elections next year means the window of possible compromise is closing, says Jon Western, who recently argued in "Foreign Policy" magazine that the United States should adopt a more robust diplomatic commitment throughout the entire Balkan region.

Western predicts that next year's political campaign season will inflame nationalist tendencies, already strong in the Republika Srpska, and says U.S. negotiators know it will be nearly impossible to reach agreement in such a charged atmosphere.

"I think the American position is, we've got to get this done by the end of the year, and I don't think the Europeans have that same sense of urgency," Western says.

He points to the visit by U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden to the country in May and the deployment of Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, the No. 2 official in the State Department, to talks this autumn as proof that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has a strong interest in helping Bosnia succeed.

And he says many people in the Obama administration who also worked for former President Bill Clinton during the Bosnian War saw firsthand how quickly ethnic tensions in that country can reach the boiling point and spill over into violence.

But he admits that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan are much higher on Washington's foreign policy radar than Bosnia, "so I can't see the administration dedicating an enormous amount of energy [to Bosnia].

"On the other hand, I think they all recognize that in Bosnia in '92 there was a certain sense of complacency that led to a lot of miscalculations, and I think there's an awareness of that. My sense, from talking to various individuals in the administration, is that they're concerned that the situation in Bosnia is deteriorating and they don't want to see a return to war."

That's something that everyone in Bosnia can probably agree on.

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