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A New Strategy For The Balkans?

Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Sweden's EU presidency appear intent on reinvigorating the EU's efforts in the Balkans -- but is it too little, too late?
Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Sweden's EU presidency appear intent on reinvigorating the EU's efforts in the Balkans -- but is it too little, too late?
Nearly 15 years ago, Balkan political leaders gathered at a U.S. military base near Dayton, Ohio, and agreed to a peace deal to end the wars in the region.

Since then, three key players have died -- Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic, and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. New ones have come to power, but Bosnia-Herzegovina remains a fragile, dysfunctional state and a danger to the entire region.

On October 9, Bosnia's current leaders will gather at another military base -- this one the base of international forces in Sarajevo. While the Dayton accords ended the war, they failed to create a framework under which Bosnia could become a viable state. The meeting this week is intended to face up to that problem and begin the process of solving it.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, representing the European Union, and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg will be key players at the talks, having called the meeting "in order to initiate political dialogue" with the long-term goal of advancing Bosnia's Euro-Atlantic ambitions.

A statement prepared by the Swedish EU presidency says the gathering is an "important opportunity for political leaders to express the will to overcome current political crises."

Optimistic Talk

U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia Charles English recently visited the capital of Republika Srpska, Bosnia's predominantly Serbian entity, to meet with its prime minister, Milorad Dodik. No details of the meeting were released, but RFE/RL's Balkan Service confirmed that the confrontation was tense.

English later told RFE/RL that "a proposal for solving many of the current problems" will be presented to Bosnian leaders at the October 9 meeting, but he did not elaborate.

Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, who formerly served as the international high representative to Bosnia and who is participating in the current dialogue there, told RFE/RL that "good news" can be expected from Bosnia in the next few days.

He also indicated that a strategy for the country "has been finalized" and said his optimism "is based on the talks I had in recent days, especially last week in Washington and New York." He added, though, that only Sweden has the authority to make formal announcements on behalf of the EU.

Perhaps emboldened by the success of the Lisbon Treaty in last week's referendum in Ireland, Bildt seems to have decided to step up and fill the gap left by other EU leaders in recent years when it comes to the Balkans. At the same time, it appears the United States has decided to reengage in the political processes of the region.

Bosnia's Willful Disunity

On the ground in Bosnia, the need for a more intense Euro-Atlantic policy on Bosnia could hardly be more obvious.

Having made little progress on reforms, Bosnia was left out of a recent EU visa-free-travel scheme offered to many of its neighbors. EU membership for Bosnia seems more like a receding dream than a realistic prospect. Dodik consistently refuses to implement decisions of the high representative and has called for that office to be abolished and threatened to secede from Bosnia. The economy is a shambles and educated youths are leaving for the West in droves. The social atmosphere is so tense that very little incident is quickly magnified into a major interethnic conflict.

Meanwhile, the country's leaders argue with one another through the media instead of talking and working together directly. Sulejman Tihic, a former member of Bosnia's tripartite Presidency and the current head of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), has said that people "cannot take from the Dayton agreement the parts that they like and reject the parts they don't."

Dragan Cavic, of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), said that "those who think they can keep the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia by creating crises are acting against the country's interests." Dodik, for his part, has called those in the Republika Srpska parliament who disagree with him "traitors" who have "an obedient attitude toward the high representative."

"We are now in a dangerous dynamic," said former High Representative Paddy Ashdown in a recent interview with "The New York Times." "And if we fail to operate in a cohesive fashion, we could end up with the de facto disintegration of Bosnia-Herzegovina."

But can the EU and the United States prevent this through its program of promoting Euro-Atlantic integration when some key regional leaders seem to seek disintegration? Can they initiate a dialogue among people who do not want a dialogue? Can they -- to use Bildt's phrase -- push leaders to seize "an opportunity to express the will to overcome current political crises" when the same leaders are intentionally creating these crises?

Dodik has already said he will reject any offer that Bildt and Steinberg make to him on October 9.

EU Has Stick, But Does It Have Will To Use It?

It is hard to be optimistic about Bildt's initiative, although it is heartening that he is making the effort. The limits of the EU's involvement in Bosnia are well-known. The high representative, for instance, regularly annuls decisions made by the parliament in Banja Luka, but takes no stronger action against it. Dodik's aggressive posture is a direct result of the EU's toothlessness.

Many local leaders are profoundly corrupt and have no interest in creating a functional state. The foreign minister does not speak to his deputy; the government ignores laws passed by parliament; police allow criminals to run away from prison; the Islamization of Sarajevo has been under way for years.

Clearly, Brussels needs to devote much more energy to the problems of the Balkans and it needs to be prepared to bring sticks to the table as well as carrots. The EU already has the instruments it needs -- it has a legal framework for making decisions and a police/military force to implement them. But over the years, EU action in Bosnia has consistently been too little and too late.

It is no wonder that when people really want something done, they turn to the U.S. Embassy, expecting the United States at least to speak with one voice. Perhaps the reengagement of Washington in the processes of Bosnia is the most hopeful part of the Bildt initiative. As Ashdown told "The New York Times," "Bosnia is dysfunctional, but not as dysfunctional as Brussels."

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL