Is the Fragile Peace in Bosnia Crumbling?

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Until recently, Bosnia-Herzegovina was often described as a shining example of succesful international effort in post-conflict reconstruction and nation building. Since the war ended eleven years ago, hardly a shot was fired, towns and villages were repaired, and many refugees have returned to their homes. But now, a month ahead of crucial presidential and parliamentary polls, ethnic tension spurred by local political leaders is running so high that Bosnia's relapse into war no longer seems unthinkable.

Bosnian Muslims, the largest ethnic group in the region, are pushing to dismantle Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated entity created by the 1995 Dayton peace accord and one of the two ethnically centered statelets, or entities, that comprise Bosnia. The other is the Muslim-Croat federation. Each has its own parliament, government and president. (Bosnia as a whole has a weak central government and a three-member presidency: one Serb, one Muslim and one Croat.) Bosnian Serbs are threatening to secede and merge with neighboring Serbia. "When I hear people talk on the news and in the cafes, I get the feeling that they're just about to jump at each other's throats," says Mirjana Topic, a student from the Bosnian Serb capital of Banja Luka. "All it would take is some fool's call for war."

Although Bosnian politicians have so far refrained from calling up voters in their constituencies to reach for the guns, they have done just about everything else to provoke and insult the opposing ethnic groups. Last Sunday Borislav Paravac, the Serbian member of Bosnia's collective Presidency, stated that the behavior of his Muslim colleague Sulejman Tihic was "idiotic." Tihic had previously said that those Serbs who do not accept his vision of Bosnia as a centralized state should pack up and move out of the country.

Considering the intensity and the general tone of Bosnia's dirty election campaign, it's almost a miracle that violent incidents involving Serbs and Muslims — who share many cultural traits, but not a religion — have been relatively few. Yet there were some: on August 11, an explosive device damaged the tomb of Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's wartime (and Muslim) president; most Muslims blamed the Serbs, who for their part insisted that Muslims staged the explosion; the ongoing investigation has so far been fruitless.

But the main fault line is not so much religion, but the legacy of war: Muslims, who were ill-prepared for the war, took much more casulties than Serbs, who were well armed and supported by Serbia; they now feel that Serbs were unjustly rewarded by being allowed to have their own statelet in Bosnia. Tihic, and other leading Muslim politicians have repeatedly stated that Republika Srpska "is built on genocide and agression" and should therefore be abolished. Serbian leaders, such as Srpska's Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, would have none of that. "Serbs are sick and tired of being collectively treated as war criminals by Sarajevo," Dodik said in a newspaper interview on Monday. "In the end, we may have no other options but to call for a referendum. It would be, after all, a democratic solution."

It would, however, be ilegal, both by the Dayton peace accords and by Bosnia's constitution. Bosnia is actually not a fully sovereign state — it supervised by the Office of High Representative and its peace is maintained by international European force — and the representatives of the international community have clearly stated that no move towards secession would be tolerated.

"The general feeling is that all this talk on the referendum and the abolishment of Srpska is a bluff, but the stakes are getting higher every day," says a Sarajevo-based Western diplomat. "The real cause for concern is that nationalism seems to be the only game in town. No one is preaching tolerance — it just doesn't win any votes." The diplomat pointed out that Bosnia's poor state of economy, and high unemployment rate, are also a factor, providing fertile ground for populists and demagogues of all sorts. "It's much easier to play the blame game than to actually address this country's issues," he said.

Another cause for concern is that the issue of Kosovo — formerly Serbian province which is expected to become independent early next year — is also affecting Bosnia. The fear is that Serbia, frustrated by losing Kosovo, may seek to compensate by encouraging Bosnian Serbs to join with Serbia. Still, no political leaders in Belgrade have publically endorsed the referendum idea.

Meanwhile, apart from the graveyard explosion, and ocasional fistfights between Serbs and Muslims in ethnically mixed villages, the fiery words remain just that — words. "As usual, people retained much more common sense than the politicians," says Fuad Kovacevic, the editor of Onasa news agency in Sarajevo. "Almost everybody here is old enough to remember the war, and nobody wants it back." Slavo Kukic, a sociology professor in Mostar, agrees. "I'don't think it could happen again," he says. "After the first shot, everybody would just run away to the far corners of the world. We've been through hell once, and it was more than enough."