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Bosnia: President Belkic Discusses Independence, SFOR Withdrawal

By Anes Alic/Jen Tracy

On the heels of last week's 10th anniversary of Bosnia-Herzegovina's independence, the chairman of the country's tripartite presidency, Beriz Belkic, says he laments the fact that nationalistic undertones have kept many of his country's citizens from celebrating. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondents Anes Alic and Jen Tracy in Sarajevo, Belkic discusses the planned departure of international peacekeepers, the successes and failures of the Dayton accords, and his hopes for a unified nation.

Sarajevo, 6 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Beriz Belkic, the Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, took over as chairman of the body less than two weeks before the country marked its 10th anniversary of independence from the former Yugoslavia on 1 March.

Belkic says the nature of last week's celebrations -- which saw the first-time participation of a Yugoslav official but which were ignored in the country's Serbian entity -- were a clear indication of how the country is faring as it rebuilds from the social and economic devastation suffered during its 1992-95 war.

"The refusals to celebrate [in Republika Srpska] have only political motives -- as do many other things that are choking Bosnia -- from some parties and political figures who still think that there is an alternative to accepting Bosnia and Herzegovina as a unified state. But I think that soon time will show that they are not right, and soon all citizens will accept Bosnia as their country. I also hope that citizens will soon start to believe in Bosnia and to plan their futures. Simply, Bosnia is not too small for anyone. It is a state for all nations who live in it. We have to assure people that they belong to Bosnia."

The country's current joint Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian presidency is widely considered the most cooperative to date. But Belkic, who took office on 14 February, says that problems still exist. At the heart of those problems, he says, is an undercurrent of nationalism that keeps the country from true unification and development.

Belkic cites as a major roadblock the failure to implement key aspects of the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which ended the country's three-year war by creating a joint multiethnic federal government as well as the country's two entities, Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation. The Dayton agreement, which calls for equal rights for all citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been upheld by the federal Constitutional Court but has yet to be reflected in reforms in either of the entities' individual constitutions. The Muslim-Croat Federation recently offered to modify its constitution to guarantee the rights of its resident Serbs, provided Republika Srpska responded in kind with equal rights for Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats. The Serb entity, however, refused.

It's that refusal, Belkic says, that is costing the country dearly in terms of development, stability, and image. Although the Bosniak leader has only eight months before a new joint presidency is elected, Belkic says he hopes to see constitutional reforms in place before the end of his term. To this end, he says the question of Republika Srpska's statehood should be laid to rest.

"Now it is very problematic to move away from the theory that Republika Srpska belongs to the Serbian nation, that they earned it by fighting. Now we have to put things into a different perspective. The entities, and any other aspect of the country's internal organization -- if they are based on democratic principles, if they respect human rights, and if equal rights of people are not in question -- are not a problem."

Critics have argued that Bosnia-Herzegovina's divided structure does not represent a viable state, and is only sustained because of the presence of some 18,500 NATO-led Stabilization Force troops. But recent (Feb 28) remarks by General Joseph Ralston, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, regarding plans to send home some 1,800 of the U.S. troops, have been hailed as a sign the country is on the upswing. Belkic himself says the country is now stable enough to withstand the pullout of peacekeepers, and says continued ties with the international community -- bolstered by Bosnia-Herzegovina's expected entry into the Council of Europe this spring -- mean the country will not be bereft of support.

"Entrance into the Council of Europe absolutely ensures that the international community will always be present," he said. "And entrance into other European associations is a clear sign of the presence of the international community here."