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EU Changes Course

Martin Schrader (kjb)March 6, 2008

Bosnia Herzegovina has been under the guidance of the international community for over 12 years. Now it seems that the EU is setting a new course in its dealing with the divided country.

Two children play with a ball behind barbed wire
Bosnia-Herzegovina still has a long way to go, says the EUImage: AP

Brussels' new path is evident in two recent decisions. At the end of February, the European Union, the United States and Russia decided to leave their high representatives to Bosnia-Herzegovina in the country indefinitely. Originally, the plan had been to pull them out in 2008 and let the country become a sovereign state, but according to Brussels, it's much too early for that step.

The second path-setter, announced on Wednesday, March 5, came in the form of a catalogue of new initiatives intended to promote civil society and enhance economic and social development in all seven of the Balkan countries.

The measures include easing visa requirements, more funding for student scholarships and extensive loans from the European Investment Bank.

For the first time, Brussels is supporting the democratization of individual countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina with a policy that applies to all the Balkan states.

Following Kosovo's example

Kosovars celebrate independence
Some Bosnian Serbs see Kosovo's independence as a precedence setterImage: AP

Some 4 million people live in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Half of them are Muslim, a third is Serbian and a fifth is Croatian.

After the civil war (1992-1995), the country was divided into two independent parts -- the so-called Republic of Srbska, with an ethnic Serb majority, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since then, both sides have blocked the possibility of democratic self-administration. Even the international community's high representative wasn't able to wrest the country from its political deadlock, despite having dictator-like authority.

Bosnia-Herzegovina seems to be caught in its worst political crisis since the end of the civil war, which most political observers attribute to Kosovo's recent declaration of independence.

Kosovar independence "set the precedence that the borders of constituent republics aren't sacrosanct," said Balkan expert Dusan Reljic from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

Many Bosnian Serbs have come to the conclusion that what goes for Kosovo should also apply to the Serbian republic that is part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But this kind of logic is threatening to break up the nation.

EU visa policy not equitable

Wolfgang Petritsch, who served as the UN's High Representative to Bosnian and Herzegovina from 1999 to 2002, is among the critics of the EU's Balkan policy.

"The fundamental problem behind Europe's Balkan policy is that it's only progressed very selectively and no one had looked at the greater context or the influence that the various hot spots have on each other," said Petritsch.

The European Commission's most recent offer to all seven Balkan countries seems long overdue. According to Reljic, the differing visa requirements for Bosnian Croats on the one hand and Bosnian Serbs and Muslims on the other is one of the policies that should have been changed a long time ago.

Wolfgang Petritsch
Petritsch said time is a key factor in bringing sustainable changeImage: AP

Since the Bosnian Croats not only have Bosnian but also Croatian passports, they are granted free entry into the European Union, but Muslims and Serbs need a visa.

"All the people in the western Balkan region need to be allowed to travel into the EU," said Reljic. "During 40 years of communism in Yugoslavia, people could travel to the West and now, after 15 years of democracy, they're not allowed to anymore."

A matter of time

Nevertheless, the EU's new comprehensive approach to the Balkans isn't likely to be a quick fix. Rather, regional experts take a rather bleak view as far as the near future of the Balkans goes.

Building a functioning state system have always been underestimated, said Petritsch. Only now has it become apparent that 12 years aren't enough but that it's more a question of generations, he added.

The former High Representative said the EU may have to keep the peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina for another 20 years, as ethnic barriers are likely to remain until the country eventually joins the bloc.