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Inside Europe

Ethnic Divisions Continue Burdening Bosnia and Herzegovina

More than 13 years after the end of the war in Bosnia, deep ethnic divisions still exist between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Secession calls from Republika Srpska could lead to the country's collapse.

A sign saying welcome to Republika Srpska

A sign saying "welcome to Republika Srpska" clearly marks this part of Bosnia and Herzegovina

The recent EU progress report on countries in the western Balkans expressed concern about political instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It criticized the rabble-rousing rhetoric of the countries' politicians, saying it blocked the functioning of Bosnian institutions.

With three ethnic groups, two entities and one country, Bosnia and Herzegovina has an identity problem. When the war ended in 1995, the Dayton peace agreement laid the foundations of the country, splitting it into two entities: the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska and the Bosniak/Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ethnic divisions have time and again stalled badly needed political and administrative reforms and weakened the central government. Hans Juergen Moeller has been working on development issues in Bosnia for more than a decade and is based in Banja Luka. He says ethnic tensions are clearly getting worse.

"Just after the end of the war, people were busy rebuilding their lives, making sure they had food," Moeller says. Now, the situation appeared to have stabilized, giving people more time to think about identity. This led to exclusion, he says, especially as there was always a majority that clearly dominated the other groups.

"And in good old Balkan fashion, the majority oppresses the minority, and if that's not the case, the minority thinks it's being oppressed by the majority," Moeller says. "It has always been like this here, and it's still the case today."

Public opinion just as divided as the nation

In Republika Srpska, almost 90 percent of the population is Serb. In the center of the entity's capital Banja Luka, Serbian flags not Bosnian ones are flying everywhere -- not only on official buildings, but also on churches and sport stadiums.

The Republika Srpska Assembly and seat of the Prime Minister in Banja Luka

Both Bosnian and Serb flags fly in front of the Assembly

Talking to the people on the street, one gets the feeling that their opinion is just as divided as the country is.

"I don't see a future here in Republika Srpska and no perspectives for young people," says one woman. "I think Republika Srpska would be better off on its own."

A man says that people's mentality plays a major role in wanting to divide the country.

"We can no longer live with people who slaughtered us in 1941, and tried it again in the 1990s, wanting to create an Islamic Bosnia," he says. "We need three completely ethnically clean national states."

But another woman says that is not the solution.

"We're better off together than separated," she says.

Impossible to satisfy everyone

Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik deplores foreigners meddling in his country's politics. He accuses the international community of consistently weakening Republika Srpska. According to Dodik, the concept of Bosnia and Herzegovina, its territory and structure is absurd.

Milorad Dodik

Dodik is pushing for greater autonomy

"Only Bosnia and Herzegovina was forced to work with a structure which didn't survive in the former Yugoslavia," Dodik says. "Before the war, people said Bosnia and Herzegovina is a small Yugoslavia. But if the big one couldn't survive, how can a small one survive?"

Despite his criticism, Dodik concedes that it's difficult to find a solution for Bosnia's future that would satisfy everyone. Serbs want as much autonomy as possible -- even as far as independence. Croats are also seeking more autonomy, while Bosnian Muslims demand a more centralized and unified Bosnia.

Serbian politicians see more centralized powers as a threat and want the right to hold a referendum on any issue including secession. Sulejman Tihic, one of the most influential Bosnian politicians, says Serbian nationalism only fans the flames of Bosnian and Croat nationalism. He says Republika Srpska should remain part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"Milorad Dodik tries with his secession intentions and the constant mention of a referendum to play a political game with his own people," Tihic says. "He tries to create an image that a third power -- be it the state, the EU or whoever -- is trying to eliminate Republika Srpska."

This generated fear among Serbs that they need to defend themselves, Tihic says.

"But if he really wants to make Republika Srpska independent, he will definitely lose," Tihic says.

Even love can't bridge the divide

In the east of the country, close to the border with Serbia, nationalism is rampant. This had made life extremely difficult for Zorica, an unemployed young Serb.

Nationalistic t-shirts in Banja Luka

Street vendors sell nationalistic t-shirts in Banja Luka

"Whenever something bad happens here, family, neighbors, friends, everyone says, 'oh God, it's the Muslims again'," Zorica says. "There are great ethnic tensions here, especially because we're close to Srebrenica where so many Muslims were massacred."

Zorica -- not her real name -- was just a child during the war and grew up with an ingrained fear of Muslims. During the fighting, Muslim soldiers forced her and her family to leave their home in central Bosnia. Two years ago, in an ironic twist that echoes Romeo and Juliet, she fell in love with a young Muslim man. She says she knew it would deeply disappoint her family.

"My boyfriend asked me to marry him, but I didn't dare, because I would have hurt my parents," Zorica says. "A Muslim boyfriend was out of the question and a Croat for that matter as well."

Her relationship lasted seven months, but the fear of how their families would react became unbearable. Even though Zorica says politics is something she doesn't want to care about, ethnic tensions and nationalism destroyed what she calls the love of her life.

International community will not tolerate secession

The EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn recently expressed his alarm about the deteriorating political situation in Bosnia.

"Bosnia must be able to speak with one voice," Rehn told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. "Politicians can continue to quarrel and fall behind their neighbors or move forward to the EU."

The EU will not stand for any questioning of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, says Eldar Subasic, the EU spokesman in Bosnia.

"Calls for a referendum, threats of secession by one entity will not be tolerated by the international community," Subasic says. "We've said clearly this is a red line."

The position of the international community is clear. But is there a way forward for Bosnia and Herzegovina? The only unifying force is the possibility of joining the European Union. But the road to Brussels is subject to bitter debate, says Ognyan Tadisch, a delegate of one of the most nationalistic parties of the Republika Srpska parliament.

"Economically speaking, Republika Srpska has a much bigger chance alone than with the Federation," Tadisch says. "We don't have such a large deficit, we have less unemployed, our population is not as poorly educated, and we have a much simpler system when we're talking about market competition and everything else. In every respect, we're in a better position."

If this sounds like grounds for Republika Srpska to break away from Bosnia, it's not, says Tadisch. Independence would only jeopardize peace.

For Bosnia and Herzegovina, putting aside ethnic divisions is clearly the only way forward. But 13 years after the war, its people and politicians are still struggling to deal with the legacies of the past.

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