Page last updated at 14:31 GMT, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Bosnia nears political crisis point

By Mark Lowen
BBC News, Bosnia-Hercegovina

A cemetery in Sarajevo
More than 100,000 died in the 1992-95 Bosnian war

Within the spacious, modern courtrooms of Bosnia's war crimes chamber, the harrowing details of the country's civil conflict in the 1990s are laid bare.

The war tore apart Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats, leaving the world to talk for the first time of "ethnic cleansing".

Fifteen years since the guns fell silent, the cases are still so sensitive that foreign judges and prosecutors are employed there to ensure freedom from ethnic bias.

In December last year, Bosnia's international high representative - the country's top political figure - extended their mandate.

But the decision caused a political storm in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb Republic.

Republika Srpska is one of two semi-autonomous entities that make up post-war Bosnia - the other being the Federation between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats.

The entities were created by the Dayton Peace Accords which ended the war in 1995 and are overseen by the Office of the High Representative (OHR).

The Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, says the judges and prosecutors infringe Bosnia's sovereignty.

"They have no legitimacy," Mr Dodik tells me, calling them "unconstitutional".

Independence fears

He has called for a referendum on decisions taken by the high representative and on Dayton itself, prompting the most serious political confrontation since the war.

Milorad Dodik
I still believe this is a virtual, pointless country, only sustained by the international community
Milorad Dodik
Prime Minister of Republika Srpska

It comes as the Peace Implementation Council - the international body overseeing Dayton - meets this week in Sarajevo. The council has warned that any referendum sets Republika Srpska on "a dangerous path".

But many fear that this referendum would simply be a test-run for Mr Dodik's final goal: a vote on the independence of Republika Srpska. He has frequently supported the idea in the past, though has lately toned down his rhetoric.

"Secession is not on our agenda," he tells me, "but if we can't find ways of making this a functional country, we shouldn't rule out peacefully talking about partition."

But breaking up Bosnia would spark fears of fresh conflict, with the Croats possibly attempting to follow suit in the Federation, where they are locked in a loveless embrace with the Bosniaks. It could also encourage further ethnic-led secession in the wider region.

The referendum stand-off adds to an already paralysing deadlock between the two entities, in which the main parties fail to agree on any major constitutional reform deemed necessary for moving Bosnia forward, towards its official goal of EU and Nato membership.

"I still believe this is a virtual, pointless country, only sustained by the international community," says Mr Dodik.

"They've been here for too long. The international community only creates crises because they know that if they leave Bosnia, they'll have to go to Afghanistan."

According to some critics, Mr Dodik is attacking the foreign prosecutors and judges because he is running scared of some of their corruption allegations made against him, which centre on the funding of the sumptuous government building in which we sit.

He vehemently denies the claims when I put them to him, telling me I should be "better informed".

'Incessant drumbeat'

The main target of the prime minister's fire is the OHR, whose Deputy Raffi Gregorian says any referendum would be "provocative" and "way beyond the competency of Republika Srpska".

Raffi Gregorian
Raffi Gregorian places much of the blame for the impasse on Mr Dodik

The straight-talking American diplomat places much of the blame for the current impasse at the feet of the Bosnian Serb leader.

"Dodik has established one-party rule in Republika Srpska," he says, "and I'm sorry to say that despite our positive experience with him over many years, when he got into this position, instead of being a constructive force, he's decided to be less than constructive to put it mildly."

I ask whether he believes a referendum on independence is still the aim of Republika Srpska.

"It's been an incessant drumbeat for four years", he says, "with speeches, laws passed and efforts to break up state institutions or prevent them from functioning. They all seem to be heading in a certain direction - the question is how far they'll go?"

He says Bosnia's other communities are "deeply fearful" about the consequences of a referendum, and "wouldn't see it as a peaceful act".

Doing things 'half-way'

Impasse, secession, conflict. That such words are still even discussed here is, many say, an indictment of the international community, present in Bosnia since the war although often divided in their approach.

Eufor troops in Bosnia
The international administration is backed by EU troops

Patricia Whalen, an American judge at the war crimes court, believes the row over the judiciary perfectly illustrates the point, with only mixed support for her function from abroad.

"The fact that we were allowed to become such an issue shows that the international community was not speaking with one voice on this," she says.

"It happens with all sorts of projects where the international community comes together and does things half-way."

Fifteen years on, it seems nobody is quite sure how to mend Bosnia. War may be a thing of the past here, but political division is blighting the country's future.

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