Western officials preparing to sit down with leaders from Bosnia's three ethnic groups on October 9 in Sarajevo have gotten a stark reminder that the political and security situation in the Balkan country is deteriorating dangerously.
The October 4 killing of a young man in a violent clash between police and rival soccer fans has heightened tensions further in the already shaky country. Bosnian Internet forums are abuzz with hate speech lobbed by one ethnic group at another, and talk of a fresh conflicts.
For those who fear such an outcome, the view is that the international community must wade into the fray -- immediately, and decisively.
Ethnically fueled soccer violence isn't uncommon in Bosnia. But the latest incident -- in which a 24-year-old of Croat and Bosniak heritage from Sarajevo was killed in a clash involving Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats, and police in the Croat-majority town of Siroki Brijeg -- was the worst of its kind in almost a decade.
It also came amid a prolonged and deepening political crisis in which Bosnian Serbs are defying efforts by the international community to aid the country's integration 14 years after the end of the Bosnian War. Political Becomes Personal
The EU, which still has 2,000 soldiers on the ground, and the United States -- which helped broker the 1995 Dayton peace agreement that ended the war by splitting the country into autonomous Serbian and Muslim-Croat entities -- want Bosnians to show they can run the country without the help of a powerful international envoy, and move toward membership in the EU and NATO.
The process has been deadlocked for years. But until recently, the debate was limited to typical bickering between local politicians. Now, as one young Bosnian noted on an Internet forum this week, "the atmosphere is almost like it was during the war."
Srecko Latal, an analyst with the Sarajevo-based Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, says the political is becoming personal.
Haris Silajdzic (left) and Milorad Dodik -- polarizing figures in Bosnia
"This may indicate that for the first time in years, the tensions and animosities that so far characterized mainly the political scene, are finally starting to affect ordinary people," Latal says.
Contributing to the deterioration, he says, were early and unsuccessful attempts by the West to disengage from Bosnia and the ascent of nationalist leaders like Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik and Haris Silajdzic, the Bosniak member of the country's tripartite presidency.
The global economic crisis and domestic opposition to much-needed reforms have only compounded the problem, and pushed Bosnia to the brink of bankruptcy.
The European Union's decision earlier this year to exclude Bosnia from a list of Balkan countries being offered visa-free travel effectively killed any lingering hope among ordinary Bosnians that the West still had the means to lure the country's leadership into a more cooperative stance.
Latal, for one, sees little cause for optimism. "The gradually deteriorating situation before, during, and after the 2006 general elections has by now almost completely crippled the country and brought it to the verge of a complete collapse," he says.
In such an atmosphere, some are looking at the October 9 meeting as "the last chance to pull Bosnia out of a stinking pond," as Husein Orahovac, a commentator with the Sarajevo daily "Dnevni avaz," wrote this week. Divisive Federalization
All eyes, therefore, are on the West. But Swedish Foreign Minister and Balkan veteran Carl Bildt, who will chair the meeting at Camp Butmir -- the headquarters of the EU's peacekeeping force -- has been tight-lipped about what they may offer to the Bosnians, as have other Western officials.
The meeting is seen as an important step in the renewal of Washington's engagement in Bosnia, after a far-reaching U.S.-sponsored constitutional-reform package -- which was seen as addressing many of the shortcomings in the Dayton agreement -- was killed by Silajdzic, who found it lacking.
Charles English, the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, told RFE/RL that Bildt and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg are coming to the Sarajevo talks with a "comprehensive offer" that should address many of the issues standing between Bosnia's further integration.
That list of issues is long. Bosnian Serbs want their autonomy preserved and resent ceding more competencies to the central government.
They have threatened to withdraw their consent to delegate some judicial, fiscal, security, and defense authority to the weak central government and even break away if their autonomy is tampered with.
The October 9 meeting was prompted by a vote last week in the Bosnian Serb parliament to approve steps to withdraw from federal institutions if the international community's main oversight body -- the Office of the High Representative, led by Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko -- fails to accommodate its concerns.
The Bosniaks, by contrast, want the central government reinforced, while the Croats want what they see as their "inferior" position in the Muslim-Croat Federation altered, so that they have equal say.No Big Fix
Analysts like Marko Prelec, the Balkans director for the International Crisis Group, are not convinced that the West can deliver immediately.
Prelec says the meeting "seems to be a hasty reaction to the crisis in Bosnia. I doubt the U.S. and EU are coming with a comprehensive solution to Bosnia's fundamental problems, because that solution is very hard to find. And even if they have found it, it's not clear national leaders can accept it in this atmosphere."
The West should avoid issues that could antagonize them even more, Prelec says. Instead, they should focus on something all Bosnians can agree on -- such as changing the constitution to make it consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights, or increasing the size of the Parliamentary Assembly.
Prelec adds that its "also important to prevent the conflict between the Serbs" and Inzko "from becoming a conflict between Serbs and the state. In this atmosphere, having an agreement -- almost any agreement -- is more important than what the agreement is about."