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Banja Luka Takes Autonomy Battle To U.S., As Russia Comes To Sarajevo

Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik wants to end international supervision of Bosnia

WASHINGTON -- The government of Bosnia's Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, has launched a two-pronged diplomatic offensive aimed at sending an unmistakable message to the international community: stay out of Bosnia's internal affairs.

Banja Luka sent envoys this week to Washington to deliver that message to officials in Congress. And on November 5, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a one-day visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina to voice support for the Republika Srpska's drive to eliminate the Office of the High Representative, the international oversight post tasked with supervising the 1995 Dayton peace agreement that ended the Bosnian war.

Speaking at a news conference after meeting with Bosnia's Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj, Lavrov said the time has come to let Bosnians run their own country without outside interference.

"The election of Bosnia to the [UN] Security Council [in October] makes especially relevant the issue of Bosnians taking the fate of their country in their own hands, so they can finally rid themselves of outside supervision," Lavrov said.

"And in this regard, Russia, as an active member of the Peace Implementation Council, supports the rapid transformation of the Office of the High Representative to the office or the mission of a special representative of the EU," he added.

Unmet Benchmarks

The era of international control over Bosnia-Herzegovina began in 1995, at the end of the three-year Bosnian war, with the establishment of the Office of the High Representative (OHR).

The OHR was charged with overseeing implementation of Dayton until the country was deemed stable, democratic, and politically capable of assuming control of its own affairs. The current high representative is Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat.

In February 2007, the 55-member Peace Implementation Council, which oversees the work of the OHR, decided that Bosnia had progressed enough to allow the OHR to end its work within 18 months.

But one year later, a review of Bosnia's progress led to another decision: to extend the OHR's mandate until additional reform benchmarks and conditions were met.

That has proved an elusive goal for the fragile multiethnic state. With the country divided into two sparring entities -- the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation -- and run by an awkward postwar tripartite governing structure, accord in key areas like state property rights and constitutional reform has been all but impossible.

The Muslim-Croat Federation is aligned with the desire of the EU and United States to keep the OHR open and centralize the country's institutions. But Bosnian Serbs, who are seen as more loyal to neighboring Serbia than their own central government in Sarajevo, want more autonomy and have rejected the push for further consolidation.

Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Republika Srpska, has repeatedly called for the OHR's closure, and has threatened to hold a referendum on seceding from Bosnia.

On November 5, Dodik got a show of support from a powerful ally in the form of Lavrov's visit. The Russian foreign minister said closing the OHR is "long overdue:"

"It is only logical to terminate as soon as possible the mandate of the high representative and the so-called 'Bonn authority,' which have already become an obstacle to the strengthening of Bosnian statehood," he said.

Lavrov's comments were all the more significant coming from Sarajevo, rather than Banja Luka, the Republika Srpska capital.

Washington PR Push

The OHR's fate is due to be discussed on November 18 in Sarajevo at a meeting of the Peace Implementation Council, of which the United States and Russia are both members.

Meanwhile, in Washington, a delegation of Republika Srpska officials is making the rounds on Capitol Hill to press the case that Bosnia is capable of self-government.

It will be an uphill battle. The feeling in Washington among many in Congress and at influential policy groups and NGOs is quite the opposite: that unless the United States recommits to helping steer Bosnia's development toward EU and NATO integration, the country will continue to slide backwards into nationalistic divisions and potentially, another conflict.

One member of the Bosnian Serb delegation, Gordan Milosevic, who is Dodik's foreign-policy adviser, told RFE/RL that that view is "false."

"We are hostages of a fraud, basically, in terms of how the international public is persuaded about what the real situation in Bosnia is. It's a false impression that you're getting here," he said.

Milosevic -- no relation to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- says he and his fellow Bosnian Serbs came to Washington to reassure the Americans that Bosnia is doing just fine, and to tell them that no further help is needed.

As for the Office of the High Representative, Milosevic says the post is "the biggest thing preventing Bosnia and Herzegovina applying for [EU] candidate status."

"There is no reason for OHR to be there. Bosnia-Herzegovina is out of the Dayton phase. It's approaching the Brussels phase. And it needs a special representative of the European Union," he said.

Milosevic added that Bosnia "doesn't need an international protector who imposes laws, replaces elected officials, and such things, and even imposes amendments to the constitution. That is unacceptable. That era in Bosnia is over. It will not come back. And Mr. Inzko and his staff, they need to be aware of that fact. Unfortunately, some of them are not. And they are presenting the situation as such in order to have a justification for staying there [longer]."

He also said that what the EU and United States want for Bosnia -- to move toward membership in the EU and NATO -- is also what the Republika Srpska wants.

U.S. Misrepresented

The Republika Srpska delegation's message wasn't well received by at least one group it met with in Washington: the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

A few hours after the meeting, the chairman of the commission, Senator Benjamin Cardin (Democrat, Maryland) issued a statement that said his position in the meeting with the Bosnian Serbs had been "inaccurately summarized" on the website of the Banja Luka government.

Cardin set the record straight: "Constitutional reform is essential to creating a functional Bosnian state, and Bosnia's domestic political leaders need to find agreement on what this reform entails. This is the essence of what I said to the visiting delegation, with the additional expression of hope that the United States remains actively engaged in the effort."

He added, "If, and only if, the government of Republika Srpska shares this view that constitutional reform is key to Bosnia's progress, can they claim I support its position."

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