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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Finally On The Path To The EU?

The Bosnian Serb legislature has finally removed the last serious obstacle to Bosnia-Herzegovina's building formal ties to the EU. Problems and ambiguities nonetheless remain, and the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

The parliament of the Republika Srpska voted 55 to five, with 15 abstentions, on 5 October to accept the EU's proposed police reform package, thereby removing the last major obstacle to Bosnia-Herzegovina's integration with the Brussels-based bloc. The Bosnian Serbs have repeatedly rejected the proposal but seem to have had a change of heart after the EU's recent decision to launch admission talks with Zagreb and stabilization and association (SAA) negotiations with Belgrade, which leaves Bosnia as the only country in the region without a formal relationship to the EU or prospect of membership.

Controversial Police Reform

The Croat-Muslim federation has endorsed the police reform, which will reorganize the police and their administrative boundaries along nonethnic lines and without regard for entity boundaries. Many Bosnian Serbs consider this unconstitutional. Foreign and non-Serb critics of Banja Luka say that the Bosnian Serbs want to keep control over their police because those security forces are the bedrock of support for political, business, and possibly criminal structures.

Following the Bosnian Serbs' decision on police reform, the U.S. State Department said in a statement that Banja Luka's move is the "most significant step towards Euro-Atlantic integration taken by [Bosnia-Herzegovina] since the signing of the Dayton peace accords 10 years ago." The European Commission called the decision a "crucial step" toward the start of SAA talks between the EU and Bosnia, but did not say when those negotiations could start. EU diplomats in Sarajevo nonetheless hinted that a recommendation on talks could come from Brussels before the end of 2005. A spokesman for High Representative Paddy Ashdown hailed the parliament's move, adding that "within five years, Bosnia will have a single integrated police service at the state level, and local police areas which will cross the inter-entity border line in the limited areas where it is technically necessary."
Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic said his entity can no longer be called a "factor...obstructing Bosnia's path to Europe."

Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic was quick to take credit for the parliamentary vote, saying that his entity can no longer be called a "factor...obstructing Bosnia's path to Europe." But Milan Lazic of the Serbian Radical Party argued that the police reform "is a prelude to the abolition of the Republika Srpska, the Republika Srpska police, and all elements of statehood that we have in Dayton." At the time the peace agreement was concluded 10 years ago, then-President Biljana Plavsic and other Bosnian Serb leaders presented it to their voters as a confirmation of statehood for the Republika Srpska.

Rough Road Ahead

The parliamentary vote may still not mean smooth sailing for police reform or Bosnia's integration with the EU, however. Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service said in a commentary that the country's leaders already missed the boat for SAA talks earlier in the week by not passing reform legislation before then. By this is meant not only a decision on police reform by the parliament in Banja Luka, but also a vote by the central legislature on public broadcasting (see below) and on military reform, even though the latter was already considered a done deal before both measures were approved on 6 October. As a result, Bosnia will remain in a gray zone in terms of its relations with the EU for the immediate future, unlike all the other countries of the region. Above all, ordinary Bosnian citizens will not be able to enjoy the visa-free travel they want, at least not in the medium term, and foreign investors could well remain hesitant about coming to Bosnia.

Nor is delay the only potential problem for bringing Bosnia closer to the EU. RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service quoted Cavic as saying that the EU has accepted his proposal included in the new legislation that an "expert commission" from various levels of government in Bosnia decide by 30 September 2006 on the boundaries of the new police districts and other concrete aspects of the reform. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Pero Bukejlovic said that the devil will lie precisely in such details as far as the Bosnian Serbs are concerned.
Bosnia will remain in a gray zone in terms of its relations with the EU for the immediate future, unlike all the other countries of the region.

Indeed, the devil generally does lie in the details where negotiating in the Balkans is concerned, and the Bosnian Serbs in particular have shown themselves to be adept at ferreting out the last possible advantage. This was noticeably the case in negotiations during the 1992-95 conflict, especially regarding what former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic called "the map" or "tidying up the map." In short, the upcoming "experts' commission" and its discussions on administrative boundaries might prove more problematic than at first meets the eye.

Another Step Taken

Meanwhile, the central parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina voted on 5 October to remove another important obstacle to SAS talks by approving a law on reforming public broadcasting (PBS). The Office of the High Representative said in a statement that the move constitutes "significant progress...on PBS reform," adding that "now the respective state and entity governments and parliaments must adopt harmonized legislation regulating one state and two entity broadcasters within the 60 days deadline defined by law."

The main obstacle to PBS reform has been the Herzegovinian Croats, who want their own channel in the "Croatian language."

Serbo-Croatian is a single language with dialect differences based on geography rather than ethnicity. Nationalists of each respective group have nonetheless sought to cultivate real or manufactured differences between the dialects. As the smallest of Bosnia's three main ethnic groups, many Croats fear a loss of control over their lives unless they have a legal entity of their own instead of being included in a federation with the Muslims.

See also:

Bosnia-Herzegovina: NATO Aims To Merge Rival Armies Into Single Bosnian Force

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