Page last updated at 15:52 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

Bosnia struggles to build a nation

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Banja Luka

Children at school in Doboj
A school in Doboj is an ethnic mix - like pre-war Bosnia

The mandate of EU peacekeepers has been extended for another year in Bosnia-Hercegovina amid continuing concern about the country's ethnic fissures.

The UN Security Council voted unanimously on Thursday to prolong the mission of the 2,200-strong EU force (Eufor), whose job it is to prevent any violations of the 1995 Dayton peace deal.

Bosnia's progress towards eventual EU membership is fitful at best, delaying the end of both international military and civilian supervision of the country.

The international civilian body - the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia - will stay in place next year.

The Peace Implementation Council (PIC), which oversees the OHR, expressed deep concern about "divisive rhetoric" from Bosnia's political leaders, "which challenges the sovereignty and constitutional order of Bosnia-Hercegovina".

"All we want is a normal life," said Sanja Panic, 31, as she walked with her 12-year-old daughter through an exhibition of World War I photographs at the Museum of Republika Srpska in Banja Luka.

"A chance to travel... without having to wait a month for a visa, just to go to Austria for three days.

"I don't think we have great men like these any more," she said, pointing to the photographs.

Delicate transition

"Bosnia is not a standard country," says Miroslav Lajcak, the Slovak diplomat who became international high representative 15 months ago.

Bosnia map

"It would be irresponsible if we told our partners in Bosnia 'We are ready for you, but you must do your homework'. Instead we must help them to make Bosnia a stable, functioning, self-sustainable country."

The Office of the High Representative was originally due to close in 2007.

In June this year, Bosnia-Hercegovina finally signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU. The medium-term plan is for the EU to take over as the main international body in Bosnia, but stripped of both its military force and of the right to fire elected politicians and impose laws, which the current OHR has.

Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik is the latest thorn in the EU's side.

Fractured nation

The Dayton peace agreement created two semi-state entities: Republika Srpska - for the Serbs - and the Bosniak-Croat Federation for Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats.

Haystacks in Sevarlija
Despite reminders of the war Bosnia has plenty of rural charm

But it also envisaged central state structures, designed to reintegrate the country after the horrors of the three-year war.

That central state has been painstakingly assembled by successive high representatives.

Bosniaks and Croats are largely supportive of that work, while the Bosnian Serb leadership has regarded it with suspicion.

But Milorad Dodik has been the first post-war leader to actually challenge the central state. According to the OHR, he has built up parallel institutions, like his own government in Banja Luka, and reappropriated competences which should be held at a state level.

He has refused to hand documents to the state prosecutor, issued Republika Srpska bonds, established a separate Missing Persons Commission, and is now setting up diplomatic offices of Republika Srpska abroad.

Rebuilt house in Sevarlija
War-damaged homes have been rebuilt in Sevarlija

He has also hired a US law firm to represent his government in arguments with the OHR.

Many observers say his intention is to manoeuvre Republika Srpska into a position to call a referendum on secession, just as neighbouring Montenegro seceded from Serbia. But even some in Republika Srpska say he will not succeed.

"The real forces that keep this country together are the presence of the international community and the fact that of course nobody would recognise the independence of Republika Srpska," says Svetlana Cenic, a former Republika Srpska finance minister.

"The other thing is that ordinary people, when you talk to them, are sick and fed up of only talking about national issues and divisions."

Her view is borne out by others.

Rebuilding communities

At the Vuk Karadzic primary school in Doboj, the children of Bosniak and Croat parents expelled during the war now study and play happily with Serb children.

Bosniak farmer who returned to Sevarlija
This Bosniak farmer is one of the returnees to Sevarlija

The school's director Milenko Filipovic has to search through his files to find a list of exactly how many non-Serb children attend his school. "For us, they are all simply children," he says.

In the village of Sevarlija, above the Bosna River, just outside Doboj, a former Bosniak refugee, Nusret Delic, agrees.

"I've gone through so much fear in the past, why should I be afraid again today? If I didn't believe things would be better in future, I would not have come back," Mr Delic says.

Some 80% of Sevarlija's previous Muslim inhabitants have returned, compared to 50% for the country as a whole.

Many like Nusret are now farmers, selling their milk in Republika Srpska, and their apples and cucumbers to companies in the federation.

All the houses in the village have been rebuilt, except one, and the river, which was the wartime frontline, is weighed down today only with fallen leaves.

Earlier this month three Bosnian Serb, Bosniak and Croat leaders reached agreement at Odzak, in northern Bosnia, on a framework to resolve the thorniest points of contention - the constitution, a population census and the division of state property.

Closely watched through the long lenses of New York and Brussels, Bosnia looks set to continue limping along the bumpy road to Europe.

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Country profile: Bosnia-Hercegovina
22 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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