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Bosnia: UN Envoy Says Bosnian Peace Advancing, But Support Waning

The United Nations' top official in Bosnia-Herzegovina says the country is painstakingly implementing the Dayton peace agreement. But he also expresses concern that the international community's commitment is fading at a crucial time. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 10 May 2000 (RFE/RL)) -- The UN's high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Wolfgang Petritsch, is convinced that the Dayton peace plan is working.

Petritsch says recent local elections in Bosnia and new progress on the return of refugees are two key areas that show the deep ethnic divisions in the country may be healing. But he remains critical of the leadership of the Serb, Croat, and Muslim communities in Bosnia. He says a lack of political will by each of the main ethnic constituencies is stalling attempts at building a unified state.

Petritsch detailed his concerns about Bosnia's future in an address to the UN Security Council yesterday and in a press conference later. After eight months as the high representative, he says he is focusing on three areas that could lead to broader reforms. They are economic reform, the accelerated return of refugees, and the consolidation of state institutions.

The UN representative says Bosnia is still oriented toward the old command-economy model, with giant, state-run enterprises running mines and steel mills. This, he says, helps support the established nationalist political parties but stifles free enterprise. Petritsch told the Security Council that overhauling the banking sector and accelerating privatization will help reform the old system:

"The [Bosnian] government's urgent task is to create an enabling environment so that investors can invest without going through a maze of bureaucracy. Most of all, we need to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises, for which the work-force of this country, most economic observers agree, is well-suited."

A more emotional issue, Petritsch says, is the return of large numbers of members of ethnic minorities to their homes. There are still 800,000 displaced people and another 300,000 refugees in the two entities that comprise Bosnia -- the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Bosnian Serb entity. Last year was marked by a surge in returns, and this year the rate of returns is on pace to reach 160,000.

Public confidence was boosted after Petritsch used his authority in the past several months to dismiss 22 public officials and impose reforms on the legislation governing property return. But he says those looking at the rapid return of Kosovo's residents need to consider Bosnia's different history.

"In contrast to [Kosovo], you have a situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina where a four-year war raged, and the first refugees left the country or were thrown out of their homes in '92 -- and it took the international community four years to stop the war. So by the end of the war, they were already refugees or displaced people for four years, and it's so much more difficult of course to get these people back because of the time factor." Petritsch says facilitating the return of these people is the best way to normalize the situation in Bosnia, but that is in part influenced by the governments in Croatia and Serbia. Another important means of normalization is holding of free and fair elections.

Petritsch stressed in his comments that last month's municipal elections gave strong signals that political pluralism in Bosnia was improving. Nationalist parties continued to dominate in the mainly Serb and Croat communities, but Petritsch says there were also signs of gains by moderates there. And in the Bosnian Muslim areas, he hailed the breakthroughs of the multiethnic Social Democratic Party:

"Overall, I would say that while nationalist parties are still strong, their grip is weakening. Our reform of the media, the 'professionalization' of the police, our insistence on economic reform -- all of these things are steadily eroding their sources of power."

The high representative was less optimistic about developments on the state level. He said he was forced to impose a law creating a state border service earlier this year after Bosnia's collective presidency failed to follow through on pledges to do so. And he noted the failure of political leaders to support a permanent election law in parliament, which twice voted it down.

Petritsch said the failure of ethnic leaders to work together on building common institutions is stifling progress. He says he supports the call for Bosnian membership in the Council of Europe, reiterated yesterday by UN envoy Jacques Klein. But he says Bosnia must first take practical steps to statehood:

"We need functioning state institutions. This is something that is not just important for the work of a member of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. It's above all important for the daily life for the country itself."

Petritsch will make the case for more international contributions to the Bosnian peace effort at a meeting in two weeks (May 23) of the Brussels [Bosnia] Peace Implementation Council, a body that has not met in full since December 1998. In his remarks to the Security Council, the high representative expressed concern that what he called "donor fatigue" had set in. He said the $5.1 billion pledged four years ago has been used up. He also said the NATO-led international force in Bosnia had reduced its troops by one-third.