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Bosnia and Herzegovina, the poor and chronically divided Balkan country, is facing a new threat of disintegration.
On Sunday, the government of the Bosnian Serbs will defy the country’s constitutional court, the United States and the European Union by holding a vote to affirm Jan. 9 as a holiday. The date, which is also a Serbian Orthodox Christian holiday, is fraught in a country with a history of ethnic divisions: It commemorates the Bosnian Serbs’ unilateral declaration of independence from Bosnia in 1992, one of the catalysts for a brutal war that ended in 1995 with the Dayton accord. The court ruled in November that celebrating the holiday discriminated against Muslims and Croats, the country’s two other main ethnic groups.
Observers fear the vote could be a prelude and pretext for the Bosnian Serb Republic, one of Bosnia’s two constituent entities, to declare its independence, effectively ripping apart the Dayton peace agreement.
This week, representatives from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Turkey and the United States — who sit on a body that oversees implementation of the Dayton accord — warned that “there will be no redrawing of the map” in Bosnia.
“This referendum opens a Pandora’s box in Bosnia and in all of the Balkans,” said Srecko Latal, regional editor of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and chief analyst at SOS, a research organization based in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. “If the referendum goes ahead, it will send a message to Bosniak Muslims that Dayton is unraveling, and Bosniak Muslims will not accept the peaceful breakup of Bosnia.”
Outlining a worst-case scenario, Mr. Latal warned that the Bosnian Muslims “could take up arms and defend the country as they did in 1992,” while adding: “There is little appetite for war.”
Adding to the tensions, Sefer Halilovic, a wartime commander of Muslim forces in Bosnia, said that if the vote went ahead, the Bosnian Serb Republic “would disappear.”
Neighboring Serbia, which is trying to join the European Union and has taken steps to move past the horrors of the Balkan wars, does not support the Bosnian referendum, but its foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, has said that Serbia would not allow the destruction of the Bosnian Serb Republic if it came under attack.
With the United States distracted by its presidential election and the European Union grappling with existential problems, Mr. Latal warned that the West had “dropped the ball on Bosnia,” leaving a vacuum to be filled by Russia, whose ambassador to Bosnia has defended the Bosnian Serbs’ right to hold the referendum, and by Turkey, which has been seeking regional influence by drawing closer to the Bosnian Muslim leadership. The Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, plans to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Thursday in Moscow, raising alarms both in Washington and in Brussels.
In a gesture that seemed aimed at solidifying Bosnia’s ties to the West, European Union member nations on Tuesday asked the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, to evaluate whether Bosnia can become a candidate for membership. But Bosnia’s dire economic and political situation could mean that membership may be decades away.
The Dayton agreement, brokered by the United States, ended a bloody war that killed more than 100,000 people, but divided the country between two entities — a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Bosnian Serb Republic — with an unwieldy power-sharing system and still-festering ethnic and religious tensions.
The country is plagued by corruption, an unemployment rate of about 27 percent, and the departures of 80,000 people, many of them young and educated, who have left over the past two years. Some 400 EU-led peacekeepers help maintain calm, but that force could be expanded if hostilities break out.
Petr Pavel, a Czech general who is the chairman of NATO’s military committee, said on Saturday that the Western Balkans remained “far from stable.”
But there are fears that any instability could spill over into a region where the prospect of European Union membership has seemed increasingly elusive.
In Serbia, impatience is rising over the slow process of joining the European Union, and the country’s economy is shaky.
Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, is grappling with weak institutions, graft and the threat of Islamist extremism. Macedonia is has been mired by protracted political crisis and its own ethnic divisions. To the dismay of critics who say he has been around too long, Milo Djukanovic, who has served as president or prime minister of Montenegro for most of the last 25 years, plans to seek a new term as prime minister in elections that are scheduled for October.
Even as the region struggles with corruption and ineffective administration, the European Union is facing a backlash from voters in countries like France, the Netherlands and elsewhere who are angry about the handling of the refugee crisis, and leery of expanding the 28-nation bloc.
“The E.U,” said Rem Korteweg, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, a research group based in London, “is trying to give these countries encouragement by kicking the can down the road, even as it can’t offer them immediate membership.”
But Mr. Latal, the analyst in Sarajevo, said the West could not afford to ignore Bosnia.
“The West has forgot the hard lessons of the past, that Bosnia can dangerously destabilize the region,” he said. “The risk is that they make the same mistake they made in early 1990s, where they were unable to prevent breakup of the former Yugoslavia and war.”
Source: NY Times