As U.S. shrugs, Bosnia lurches toward disaster again

McClatchy NewspapersApril 23, 2010 

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Nearly a year after Vice President Joe Biden flew here to reassure Bosnians that the U.S. was back and would try to help overhaul their dysfunctional made-in-U.S.A. political system, ethnic tensions are rising again, morale has fallen and people are wondering: Whatever happened to Biden?

For Bosnians, whose country was largely destroyed by the ethnic warfare in the 1990s that marked the breakup of Yugoslavia, with Christian Orthodox Serbs killing as many as 100,000 Muslim and Croat civilians, it's been a year of disappointment as the U.S. has become more disengaged and distant.

"I was encouraged by his coming here. Biden was always a man of principle," an exasperated Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim chairman of the collective presidency that presides over this fractious, stagnating multi-ethnic state, told McClatchy. "I do not know what his responsibilities are now."

Bosnians expected the U.S. to be "more active and stronger in their efforts," said Sulejman Tihic, the leader of the Muslim Party for Democratic Action. "They are showing less interest. They are turning over the responsibilities to Europe, which is too complex a place and cannot define its policy."

Biden didn't respond to requests from McClatchy for comment. Aides said he was busy overseeing U.S. policy in Iraq and other issues and wasn't following Balkan affairs closely. Instead, he's handed matters to the State Department, which for the past six months has promoted a faltering diplomatic initiative.

The biggest worry in Sarajevo, the historic melting-pot capital in a country renowned for its tolerance of minorities, is that ethnic Serbs, who control the autonomous part of the country known as Republika Srpska, will hold a referendum that leads to secession. That could spell the end of Bosnia.

Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, who came to power with U.S. backing, has spoken of the "peaceful dissolution" of the Bosnian state and has openly disparaged the international community's top representative in Sarajevo.

U.S. officials drafted Bosnia's Constitution in 1995 as part of the Dayton accords, which ended the war. The constitution recognized a Muslim-Croat Federation, as well as the Serbian entity in the north and east of the country, which ethnic Serbs conquered in the 1992-95 war with the backing of neighboring Serbia.

Bosnian political leaders warn of bloodshed if Dodik carries out his threat.

"It is not possible to divide this country in a peaceful way," Tihic said. "Any real attempt like that will definitely lead us towards a new conflict."

He also said that the Muslim-Croat entity that Dayton created is "much stronger" than Dodik's forces in the Republika Srpska are.

Stipe Mesic, a former president of Croatia, warned recently that Croatia would intervene if Dodik carries out his threats.

A top State Department official on a recent visit here described the situation as "deteriorating but not a crisis."

He offered no plan to prevent the breakup of the Bosnian state, but said that if Srpska seceded, it would be "an independent statelet without a friend," similar to Abkhazia, a state that broke away from the former Soviet republic of Georgia after Russia's 2008 military intervention. The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Russia is the principal supporter of Abkhaz independence, and the Kremlin also backs Dodik, who's visited Moscow several times.

Last October, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and European Union envoy Carl Bildt attempted to launch a diplomatic initiative at Sarajevo's Butmir airport. Its contents were tailored to Dodik's demands, but he rejected them outright and scurried off to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, for talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

"He came back much stronger and more arrogant," Tihic said.

In fact, Dodik later derided the U.S.-European plan as a "total failure, unnecessary adventure," and even many of his critics have dismissed the Butmir talks as an ill-prepared fiasco. Steinberg has visited Sarajevo four times but come up empty-handed, and with presidential and parliamentary elections looming here in October, no one expects progress anytime soon.

As a result of the rejection by Dodik, Silajdzic and other Bosnian politicians, the U.S. and Europe withdrew a series of inducements. Tihic said the two parties had promised an invitation to join NATO, a lifting of visa restrictions for travel to EU countries and candidate status for membership in the EU if all parties agreed to the U.S.-European plan.

Meanwhile, Serbia was moving faster, gaining a lifting of visa restrictions and an invitation to take the first steps to join the EU — a boon to Bosnian Serbs, many of whom have Serbian passports, and a punishment to Bosnian Muslims, who have no country other than Bosnia.

There was a respite in the gloom Thursday, when NATO foreign ministers who were meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, agreed, with conditions, to invite Bosnia to prepare for membership.

The invitation, however, didn't address how a frail state whose constitution promotes ethnic rights over citizens' rights can gain the full sovereignty and stability needed to join the European Union, especially when Srpska can veto actions that would be necessary to fulfill NATO's conditions.

Still, there are bright spots. Sarajevo and most other cities have been largely repaired, and there are construction cranes in many places. Stores are stocked, and the city has trendy places to dine and drink. More important, neighboring Serbia and Croatia say they've abandoned any territorial designs on Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Boris Tadic, the Serbian president, has publicly apologized for the July 1995 mass killings at Srebrenica, and his Croatian counterpart, Ivo Josipovic, said his predecessors had "sown an evil seed" in trying to partition Bosnia with Serbia.

There are new universities, among them the American University in Bosnia and Herzegovina, started by a Bosnian who studied in the United States. Students interviewed at the Sarajevo branch, however, said they had little confidence that their politicians could steer the country out of the morass.

"It's a stalemate," said Denim Kicic, 27, of Sarajevo. "Everything should change. But they blow smoke, and make worthless promises."

One young woman professed hope about the future of her country. "If we held the Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo before the war, I am pretty optimistic about the country," said Jasmin Aganagic, 20, who's also from Sarajevo. "I am just hoping that the government will fall."

"We are stagnating," said Aldin Dervisevic, 19, from Sarajevo. "Our politicians are too old. Don't vote for them. If we want to change, we have to get rid of them."

While the U.S. continues to get universal credit for its 1995 intervention, which helped save the small country from extinction as major European states looked aside, the U.S. of late has been withdrawing in small and subtle ways.

For example, a month after Biden delivered his speech on May 19, 2009, the U.S. removed the last of a 15-member military task force whose job had been to pursue Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, whom the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has charged in absentia with genocide and crimes against humanity.

International diplomats here credit the U.S. unit with crucial behind-the-scenes assistance in helping to secure the arrest of former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, who's now on trial in The Hague, Netherlands.

U.S. officials said the Obama administration also persuaded the Netherlands, which had blocked Serbia's application for membership in the EU until Mladic was turned over to the Hague tribunal, to relax its conditions. Serbia has begun the application process, but U.S. officials say the process could be suspended if Serbia backslides.

Washington was silent, however, when Britain on March 1 arrested Ejup Ganic, a member of the Bosnian wartime presidency who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and began extradition proceedings at the demand of Serbia, which wants to try him on charges of war crimes.

The Hague tribunal and the Bosnian state court have investigated the allegations and concluded that there was no basis for proceeding. In a sense, Britain has put the Bosnian state on trial, but Ganic, who's under house arrest in Britain, expects that he'll have to pay his own expenses, because there's no way that Serb representatives in the Bosnian government will agree to pay them out of state coffers.

The U.S. attitude baffles Bosnian political leaders, who say the best hope for the country is for the U.S. to appoint a special envoy. "I still think the U.S. should take advantage of the example of Bosnia," Tihic said. "If the U.S. really wants to do something, they can do it. This is a project that the U.S. can show to the entire Muslim world."

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