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Western Diplomats Warn Bosnia On The Brink

Silajdzic (left) and Dodik (right) are dividing Bosnia.

Silajdzic (left) and Dodik (right) are dividing Bosnia.

(RFE/RL) -- Two former top Western diplomats have warned that Bosnia-Herzegovina is in danger of collapsing and that the international community could be "sleepwalking into another Balkan crisis."

In an open letter published in the British daily "The Guardian" on October 22, former U.S. Balkan envoy Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords, and British politician Paddy Ashdown, the former high representative to Bosnia, wrote that tensions in the Balkan state are about to erupt.

According to Holbrooke and Ashdown, Bosnian Serbs -- with the encouragement of Serbia and Russia -- are exploiting the lack of U.S. attention and the EU's inability to cope with the country's mounting problems to create the conditions to secede.

"It's time to pay attention to Bosnia again, if we don't want things to get very nasty quickly. By now, we should all know the price of that," Holbrooke and Ashdown wrote.

News of the letter, which was also published in the Bosnian daily "Dnevni avaz," quickly spread through Bosnia's political establishment.

"Bosnia-Herzegovina is not going to be divided and it is not going to disappear. We may face very serious problems. We have had serious problems before. I think it is in the interests of the international community to react in a timely fashion so these problems are not repeated," Sefik Dzaferovic, a member of the Bosnian parliament, tells RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service.

More than 200,000 people were killed in Bosnia in 1992-95 when Serbian and Croatian militias waged a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the region's Bosniaks, who were the war's principal victims.

The U.S.-sponsored Dayton agreement ended the war in 1995, dividing the country into the Bosnian Serbs' Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation. The two are united under a weak central government.

A NATO-led peacekeeping force withdrew from Bosnia in December 2004 and was replaced by a smaller EU-led force.

In recent years, the Muslim Bosniaks and, to some degree, Bosnian Croats have pursued what they call "constitutional reforms" aimed at strengthening the central government. Haris Silajdzic, the Bosniak member who currently chairs the tripartite rotating presidency, has sought to abolish the ethnically based republics and create a unitary country.

The changes were fiercely resisted by Bosnia's Serbs.

Worsening Ethnic Tensions

Ashdown and Holbrooke now accuse Republika Srpska Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik, who came to power following elections in 2006, of pursuing a policy of putting the Bosnian Serbs "in a position to secede if the opportunity arises." They also accuse Silajdzic of exacerbating ethnic animosity between ethnic Serbs and Bosniaks.

Local elections earlier this month confirmed the dominance of nationalists in both entities.

"After each election the glue holding our state together is disappearing. I don't think we are threatened with just collapse. Something much more grave is happening, the death [of the country]," says Mirograd Zivanovic, a professor of philosophy at Banja Luka University in Republika Srpska.

Tensions have increased markedly since Russia, flush with petrodollars, has sought to augment its influence in the Balkan region via its close ally, Serbia. Moscow and Belgrade have also pointed to Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia in February as a precedent that should allow Republika Srpska to break away from Bosnia.
Paddy Ashdown

Russia and Serbia's assertiveness, in turn, coincided with declining Western engagement in Bosnia. According to Holbrooke and Ashdown, "the tipping point is the result of a distracted international community." The two diplomats wrote that "while the Bush administration has largely turned its back on Bosnia" and "the EU has become deeply engaged," Brussels "did not develop a coherent strategy" for the country.

Alan Little, a BBC correspondent and co-author of the book "The Death of Yugoslavia," tells RFE/RL the situation is becoming increasingly critical.

"I think these is a crisis brewing in Bosnia because of the international attempt to reconstitute a functioning Bosnian state that is capable of implementing the kind of reform Bosnia needs if its economy is going to take off and its democracy is to become entrenched," Little says. "The state in Bosnia is not capable of doing that."

RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this article