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Bosnia: Parties Tentatively Agree To Constitutional Changes

Leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina's dual entities, Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation, have agreed to a partial deal providing for constitutional changes to ensure equal rights for the country's Serb, Muslim, and Croat ethnic populations. But because the Bosnian Serb and Muslim-Croat parliaments may fail to enact the modifications, the international community's high representative to the country, Wolfgang Petritsch, has hinted he may impose the changes by decree.

Prague, 28 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Major Bosnian political parties yesterday agreed in principle to implement changes to the country's dual constitutions aimed at providing equal rights to the country's Serbs, Muslims, and Croats.

The changes, which must be adopted by the parliaments of both Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation, are the result of nearly 70 hours of negotiations over the past three weeks. Seven of nine political parties involved in the negotiations have signed the agreement, but only three have signed without reservations. The Bosnian Serb parliament discussed the changes for just 10 minutes today before adjourning until next week (4 April).

The international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Wolfgang Petritsch of Austria, oversaw the negotiations. He says the agreement will mark a significant change in Bosnia's political landscape.

"The amendment of the entity constitutions is the most serious challenge that Bosnia's leaders have faced since Dayton" -- a reference to the November 1995 peace agreement that formally ended hostilities in Bosnia and Croatia and established Bosnia's postwar order.

Petritsch made it clear that, despite lingering reluctance among some Bosnian parties to accept the amendments, the two parliaments must enact the changes or face unspecified consequences. "The amendments to the entity constitutions must be adopted," he said Petritsch, whose mandate ends in two months' time, has sweeping powers and, if necessary, can impose such changes by decree.

The deal comes two years after Bosnia's Constitutional Court ruled that the constitutions of the divided country's two entities must be changed to ensure equal rights for Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs, and Croats.

In addition to Petritsch, U.S. Ambassador Clifford Bond and EU representative Rafael Garagorri signed the deal.

Petritsch's spokeswoman Alexandra Stiglmayer said the three parties to sign the agreement without reservations are from the Muslim-Croat Federation. The four to sign in spite of their reservations are all from the Serb entity. Together, the four have the two-thirds majority needed to enact the changes in the Bosnian Serb Constitution.

Two nationalist-oriented mainstream Muslim-Croat parties did not sign the agreement. The Bosniak Party for Democratic Action walked out of negotiations last week. The Croatian Democratic Union declined to sign because -- according to its deputy chairman, Niko Lozancic -- the deal ensures domination by the Serbs in Republika Srpska and by Bosniaks in the Muslim-Croat Federation.

Dragan Kalinic heads the Serbian Democratic Party, one of the four Serb parties to sign the deal. He explained the parties' decision to give the deal only partial approval.

"My own impression is that it would have been worse in this phase if we, the parties of Republika Srpska, had signed this agreement in full. And it would have been even worse if we had not signed it at all."

Kalinic also says the Bosnian Serbs want "more symmetry in substance," suggesting the Serbs are being forced to make bigger compromises than either the Bosniaks or Croats.

Petritsch rejects any suggestion of asymmetry in the deal: "There is absolute symmetry when it comes to the vital [interests of Bosnia]."

Petritsch says the deal will fully protect the interests of Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats in both entities, and "ensure their full representation in the decision-making bodies." He says representation will be determined through a combination of parity, census-based representation, and minimum quotas.

Bosnia's high representative also says the new constitutions will turn Bosnia into "a truly multiethnic country, providing Bosniaks and Croats in Republika Srpska and Serbs in the Muslim-Croat Federation with full representation and full protection of their rights."

The deal foresees that the posts of Bosnia's president and prime minister, the speakers of the entities' assemblies, chief justices of the supreme and constitutional courts, and the public prosecutors and their deputies will be occupied by members of all three constituent nations.

The two entity governments will each have a prime minister and 16 ministers. But the ethnic composition will differ. The Republika Srpska government will have eight Serbs, five Bosniaks, and three Croats, while the Muslim-Croat Federation will have eight Bosniaks, five Croats, and three Serbs.

In addition to providing both Bosnian entities with new constitutions, the deal will also give Republika Srpska a second legislative chamber. The task of the so-called Council of Peoples will be to deal with issues of vital national interest while protecting minority Croat and Bosniak interests in the Bosnian Serb entity. The Republika Srpska will also get two vice presidents -- a Croat and a Bosniak.

In the Muslim-Croat Federation, in which the presidency and vice presidency rotate between a Bosniak and a Croat, the number of vice presidents will be increased to two to ensure that one of them is a Serb.

One of the signers from the Muslim-Croat Federation, Social Democrat Chairman and Bosnian Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija, says the agreement -- despite establishing an expensive administrative system that taxpayers may prove unable to support -- is necessary.

"This morning we signed, for all practical purposes, a treaty between the Alliance [for Change, a group of moderate Muslim-Croat Federation parties] and the international community, which guarantees that the nearly two-year-old decision by the Constitutional Court is practically in the implementation phase. It also ensures that the Constitutional Court's decision will be carried out in full with respect for European standards."

Yesterday's deal was possible in part because of a softening of the Bosnian Serb stance that had traditionally defined its national interests as narrowly and strictly as possible. According to Petritsch, this stance has become increasingly open in recent months.

That may explain the alacrity with which the Bosnian Serb parliament called an emergency session today to discuss the constitutional changes. The deputies agreed to hold a full session on the issue on 4 April.

Republika Srpska Prime Minister Mladen Ivanic said today the Bosnian Serb parliament would undertake all necessary changes on its own as constitutional amendments. The Bosnian Serb parties are demanding a clear definition of equitable representation in the government as well as promotion of vital national interests.

The deal as agreed yesterday defines vital national interests as the rights of the constituent nation in the process of implementing decisions, education, religion, language, culture, traditions, cultural heritage, territorial organization, and public information systems.

Earlier this month, Petritsch told the Belgrade weekly "Nedeljni Telegraf" that "constitutional reform will have a very good effect on the return of refugees" and "will enable them to fully realize their civil and human rights." He also predicted that the changes and resulting returns "will also have a positive influence on Kosovo" by establishing "a standard of basic human rights that will be unavoidable" in the province.