Old ethnic troubles resurface among Bosnians

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

SARAJEVO, Bosnia -- Fourteen years after the United States and NATO intervened to stop war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the old divisions and hatreds are again gripping this Balkan country.

In June, the international envoy who oversees the rebuilding of Bosnia invoked emergency powers that he said were necessary to hold the country together. Although U.S. and European officials have been trying to get Bosnia to stand on its own feet for years, many Bosnian leaders say the only thing that can permanently fix their gridlocked government is for Washington to intervene -- again -- and rewrite the treaty that ended the war in 1995.

The economy is in tatters, with unemployment exceeding 40 percent. Serbs are talking openly of secession. Croats are leaving the country in droves. Religious schisms are widening. In December, street protests erupted after Bosnian Muslim school officials in Sarajevo tried to ban "Santa Claus" from delivering gifts to kindergartens.

The national government answers to three presidents, who agree on one thing: Corruption, political infighting and bureaucratic dysfunction are paralyzing the country.

In May, Vice President Joseph Biden visited Sarajevo and lectured Bosnian leaders to put aside their differences. But the squabbling has only worsened since then.

Zeljko Komsic, a Croat and chairman of Bosnia's tripartite rotating presidency, said the country has increasingly hardened along ethnic lines. Even as Bosnia dreams of integrating into NATO and the European Union, its population has become more segregated than ever.

Many Bosnian Muslim and Croat students, Mr. Komsic noted, attend school together but are separated in the classroom, so they can learn different lessons about history, geography, religion and language, based on their ethnicity.

"What kind of message are we giving to these children?" he said. "As an individual, you almost don't exist in this society. You are just a member of a certain ethnic group."

The European Union, the United States and other donors have spent billions of dollars trying to rebuild Bosnia since the 1995 signing of the Dayton, Ohio, peace accords, brokered largely by U.S. diplomats. An estimated 100,000 people were killed during the war, which erupted in 1992 after Bosnia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia.

Serb and Croat nationalists, supported by leaders in next-door Yugoslavia and Croatia, tried to carve up the country along ethnic lines. Nearly half of Bosnia's prewar population of 4.3 million either fled the country or were forced from their homes.

On the surface, Bosnia's wartime scars appear healed. Sarajevo's Old City, which was bombarded for three years by Serbian forces, bustles with smiling families snacking on cevapcici, a minced-meat kebab venerated as the national dish. Thousands of damaged houses, churches and mosques in the hilly countryside have been rebuilt with foreign aid. Ethnic violence is relatively rare.

But the international campaign to transform Bosnia into a pluralistic democracy is still limping along with no end in sight. The struggle serves as a cautionary example for U.S.-led efforts to rebuild much larger nations hamstrung by ethnic and religious factions, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bosnia is still overseen by an international viceroy, known as the high representative, who holds unchecked authority to dismiss local officials and set policy if deemed necessary for the welfare of the country.

The Peace Implementation Council, a group of 55 nations and agencies that oversees the Dayton accords and appoints the viceroy, has been trying for years to abolish the position and restore full sovereignty to Bosnia. But foreign diplomats say they are not confident that Bosnia is ready to govern itself.

Valentin Inzko, an Austrian official who serves as the high representative, said Bosnia suffers from a "dependency syndrome" that dates back centuries, to when it was part of the Ottoman Empire.

He cited an ongoing political dispute that has left Mostar, a city evenly divided between Bosnian Muslims and Croats, without a budget or a functioning government. A delegation of firefighters and municipal workers recently visited Mr. Inzko in Sarajevo to plead with him to do something, because they have gone unpaid for several months.

"I can easily intervene. I can declare a budget because people are desperate, they are hungry," Mr. Inzko said. "It's easy to do it, but to do it contributes to this dependency syndrome."

Under the Dayton accords, Bosnia was divided into two autonomous zones, each with its regional parliament. One zone is the Republika Srpska, or the Serb Republic; the other is known as the Federation, and it consists mostly of Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

Muslims represent about half of Bosnia's population, with Serbs accounting for about a third, and Croats making up much of the rest. Nobody knows precise numbers, however, because the last census was taken in 1991.

Raffi Gregorian, an American who serves as the deputy high representative, said the political mood in Bosnia began to sour three years ago, after Mr. Dodik's party took power in the Serb Republic.

Since then, he said, many politicians have tried to win votes by fanning ethnic fears and suspicions. "Thank God, there have been no physically violent incidents," he said. "But the rhetoric, according to people who have been here, is as bad as it's been since 1991."


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?