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The Balkans Look To 2011 With Cautious Optimism

The members of Bosnia's tripartite presidency at their inaugural session in Sarajevo on November 10 (left to right: Bakir Izetbegovic, Zeljko Komsic, and Nebojsa Radmanovic)
The members of Bosnia's tripartite presidency at their inaugural session in Sarajevo on November 10 (left to right: Bakir Izetbegovic, Zeljko Komsic, and Nebojsa Radmanovic)
There's an ethnically mixed village in Kosovo called Rabovce which, like most towns in the region, has a small football stadium.

A while back, local ethnic Serbs put a lock on the stadium gate, preventing ethnic Albanians from using the pitch. Needless to say, the Albanians weren't pleased. Within days, they had broken down the gate and resumed playing in the stadium.

It could have been another ugly situation in the Balkans. But NATO's KFOR got involved and brokered a deal under which the Serbs could use the pitch on certain days and the Albanians on others according to a set schedule.

Meanwhile, the daily "Nezavisne novine" -- which is based in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb-dominated entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina -- named Croatian President Ivo Josipovic its "Person Of The Year." Much to the surprise of most observers, all the leaders of Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia decided to attend the award ceremony in Banja Luka last week.

On the sidelines of that event, Republika Srpska head Milorad Dodik and Bosnian Social Democratic Party leader Zlatko Ladumdzija, a strong candidate for prime minister, held talks that were described as successful. Both leaders expressed a desire to find common goals for the divided country.

"We want to behave differently," they announced jointly.

Does all this mean that 2011 holds hope for progress in the Balkans? There are some reasons to think so.

2010 was characterized by a harsh exchange between Bosniak leader Haris Silajdzic and Dodik. But when Silajdzic lost his bid for reelection to the Bosnian Presidency in October, Dodik lost his bête noire. Silajdzic's successor, Bakir Izetbegovic, has already made moves toward dialogue and reconciliation.

The real winner in the country's parliamentary elections was Ladumdzija's Social Democrats, a party that has consistently advocated tolerance, civility, and a multiethnic society.

Stars Aligning

At the same time, Bosnia's neighbors are rapidly moving closer to the European Union. Croatia hopes for full membership by the end of 2011, and Serbia hopes to follow in short order. In order to do so, Serbia will have to send a stern message to Dodik that it is time for him to seek solutions in Sarajevo, not Belgrade.

Six months ago, the joint Railway Company of Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia was founded. Last month, about 100 businesspeople from Serbia and Croatia met in Zagreb and inked a number of deals on joint investment. The message that went out was clear: We are stronger when we act together.

Meanwhile, the desire for better performance and higher revenues is spurring regional efforts to promote competition and cooperation in sports. Breakthroughs came in the popular sports of water polo and basketball, followed quickly by handball. Now there is encouraging talk of a regional soccer league.

The stars might also be aligning in the international community. The EU could pick the Balkans as a region of focus as it seeks to demonstrate that it is a vital global player. By January, every country in the region (except Kosovo) will have been granted visa-free travel regimes with the EU. Washington, also, is increasingly viewing the Balkans as ripe for a breakthrough.

Finally, we should not underestimate pressure from citizens throughout the Balkans who are sick of decades of violence, enmity, and economic crisis.

Seize The Moment?

In other regions, such encouraging signs might generate strong optimism. But in the case of the Balkans -- and Bosnia in particular -- one must always be cautious. A breakthrough on reconciliation requires sufficient will in all countries at the same time and for a reasonable period of time. If even one piece of that complex mosaic is missing, everything will fall apart.

The late Richard Holbrooke deserves enormous credit for having achieved the Dayton peace accord; his job was to end the war with a peace deal and he accomplished it. Viewed through reasonable eyes, this was a deal that opened the door to progress; viewed through their opposite, it was easy to misuse. But if the Balkans had had someone like Holbrooke in place after the peace deal, we would today have Balkan countries in the EU.

Since there is not, pessimists do not deny the above-mentioned facts; but they do note that Dodik has no need for a counterpart in order to continue making provocative statements.

Izetbegovic remains unproven in terms of deeds. The anti-European movement in Serbia is alive and influential. There are business interests who still believe there is more money to be made in war than in peace, and commitment from the EU is a notoriously fleeting thing.

Meanwhile, the football-pitch-sharing deal in the Kosovo village of Rabovce lasted about a month.

One Monday, the Serbs showed up and discovered they didn't have enough players for a game. So they invited some nearby Albanian youngsters to play with them. The next day, the Albanians invited the Serbs to join them. For now, at least, the kids in Rabovce are mostly arguing about who is the best soccer player. And that's a good start.

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