Will Bosnia Test the Obama Administration?

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Elvis Barukcic / AFP / Getty

A policeman walks past a burnt mosque in Fazlagica Kula, near Trebinje, in the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia, on December 9, 2008. Tensions remain high between Bosnia's main ethnic groups some 13 years after its war ended with a peace deal that divided the country into two entities -- the Serbs' Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation.

Could an old triumph be coming back to haunt the Clintonites who are joining President-elect Barack Obama's staff? If there's one foreign policy achievement that Clintonites are proud of, it's Bosnia. Some 13 years ago, during Bill Clinton's second term, a U.S.-led military intervention stopped the carnage in the former Yugoslav republic, followed by a peace deal forged by then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and signed in Dayton, Ohio. The deal, which carved Bosnia into two ethnically based statelets while retaining a weak common government, was so successful that vice-president-elect Joe Biden suggested it should be used as a model for ending the sectarian war in Iraq.

But, once again, Bosnia is in deep crisis, with tensions running high between ethnic Serbs, Croats and Muslims (now officially called Bosniaks). There is even talk of a new war. Might this be a sudden test for the new Obama Administration? (See the Top 10 Underreported Stories of 2008.)

The rhetoric out of the country is alarming. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik publicly declared that he doesn't believe the common state has a future, and occasionally hints that his Serb-dominated statelet may secede from Bosnia. From the other side of the ethnic divide, leading Bosniak politician Haris Silajdzic repeatedly calls for the abolishment of the Serbian Republic, which he sees as a product of a Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign during the war. "It appears that the status quo created by genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes has acquired a degree of sanctity in Bosnia and Herzegovina and that genocide and ethnic cleansing are being rewarded," Silajdzic warned in a recent letter to the leaders of the European Union and NATO.

Even Holbrooke, the chief architect of the Dayton peace agreement, is worried. "It's time to pay attention to Bosnia again, if we don't want things to get nasty very quickly," Holbrooke said in a letter co-signed by Paddy Ashdown, the former chief of Office of High Representative (OHR), the international supervising and administrative body in Bosnia. Both Holbrooke and Ashdown claim that Bosnia is regressing, and that the Western powers should swiftly and strongly engage to prevent a renewed conflict and ensure Bosnia's evolution into "a functional and E.U.-compatible state."

Meanwhile, insults are flying across the ethnic divide, spurred by tabloid media and populist politicians from both sides. Two weeks ago, Dodik's government decided to remove the adjective "Bosnian" from the names of several towns in the Serbian Republic. Meanwhile, in once multi-ethnic Sarajevo, a decree by Bosniak officials introducing compulsory lessons in the Koran to kindergarteners prompted remaining Serbs and Croats to pull their children out of school. "Instead of showing some statesmanship, Bosnian political leaders are practicing petty politics", complains the current OHR chief, Slovakian diplomat Miroslav Lajcak.

The divisive ethnic vitriol is further fueled by political calculation. Nationalism sells — as Dodik's and Silajdzic's parties learned in recent local elections, when they won the bulk of the vote in their respective constituencies. The politics of ethnocentrism props up the parties that really don't have anything else to offer the populace. The economy has been in deep trouble even before the international financial crisis. Unemployment and corruption are among highest in the region. Basic goods suffer from inflation. According to a recent study, about 70% of Bosnians below the age of 30 have abandoned hope for a better future at home, and would rather emigrate to the West.

So is Bosnia about to dissolve in another bloody mess? Some analysts caution that the talk of war is overblown and overheated. Some real progress has been achieved in the past 13 years. The peace has been sustained; a high proportion of refugees have returned to their homes; and despite harsh words, no serious incidents of ethnic violence has occurred in recent years. In June 2008, Bosnia signed a crucial agreement with the E.U., putting it on the road to membership. Most importantly, the country's armed forces were recently unified and, unlike Bosnia's political apparatus, put under central command. The military is taking steps to join NATO. "People do talk of another war, but I don't think it can really happen again", says Muharem Bazdulj, a prominent Sarajevo-based writer and a columnist for the daily Oslobodjenje newspaper. "The fact that the military, of all institutions, just successfully underwent drastic reform is a proof of that. But we do need long-term stability, and that requires joint effort both at local and the international level", Bazdulj told TIME.

Other observers agree. "Talk of possible war in Bosnia today is foolish and irresponsible" says former OHR official Gerald Knaus, who now heads the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think-tank. "There is no more chance of war in Bosnia today than there is in Cyprus or Belgium." Knaus blames the current troubles on the "irresponsible political elites." That political accomodation that allowed the war to end 13 years ago, however, will continue to roil the country's politics for the foreseeable future. Knaus sees no easy way out of the Serb-Bosniak stalemate. "No miraculous constitutional reform plan and no powerful international foreign mission can overcome this: both have been tried for many years," he told TIME.

With the U.S. in transition, and the E.U. preoccupied with its own troubles, there's not much chance that Bosnia, short of war, will get the attention from the West to change its intractable status quo. As for the local politicians, they have learned long ago that selling bigotry at home (with its nuisance value abroad) is the best way to stay afloat. Until the Bosnians decide to elect better leaders, they will just have to bear the weight of an uneasy peace.

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