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In Bosnia, Tension Reigns Years After War’s End

November 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Although Bosnia and Herzegovina has repaired physically from its bloody civil war, its citizens are experiencing political and social challenges. The report is part of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting's Fragile States project, a partnership with the Bureau of International Reporting.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, another of our stories on fragile states around the world. Special correspondent Kira Kay reports on Bosnia Herzegovina, the Eastern European nation once part of Yugoslavia.

KIRA KAY: Amira and Sabahudin Garibovic are pioneers, Bosnian Muslims who have returned to land they were expelled from in the early 1990s, during their country’s brutal ethnic war. They and their then infant son had survived a year in a detention camp. When they moved back a few years after the war ended, they found little more than ruins where their home had been.

AMIRA GARIBOVIC, Kozarac resident. It was terrible. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We were happy to be back, but it was really very difficult, because we didn`t know where to start.

KIRA KAY: Today, the Garibovices have rebuilt their home and restarted their lives. But they are now minorities. Their town of Kozarac is one of the few Muslim communities inside the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia.

Once devastated by the war, life is now slowly returning to the streets. The air is full of the sound of new construction and the Muslim call to prayer. Unemployment is still very high here. And residents say discrimination continues.

But that Kozarac exists at all today is proof that Bosnia Herzegovina is moving away from its bloody past. One hundred thousand people were killed in the civil war here, a war that taught the world the term ethnic cleansing.

But, 14 years ago, American and European diplomats persuaded bitter adversaries to sit down at an Ohio Air Force base and agree to stop the bloodshed in what has become known as the Dayton Accords.

Fifty thousand NATO troops helped secure the peace, and extensive investment by the international community quickly followed. And, to many people’s surprise, the peace has held. Today, most of the country has been physically repaired. The capital, Sarajevo, still carries some scars of its three-year siege, but otherwise feels like a normal bustling city.

The NATO operation has been replaced by a much smaller European Union mission of only 2,000 troops. And there have been some major structural reforms here.

RAFFI GREGORIAN, deputy high representative, Office of the High Representative: All these things were done in the first half of — of this decade, tremendous progress.

KIRA KAY: American diplomat Raffi Gregorian is second in command at the Office of the High Representative, the international body created by Dayton to supervise the country until it can stand on its own.

Infrastructure remains weak

RAFFI GREGORIAN: There were still three former warring armies here in Bosnia Herzegovina. Today, there's one. There used to be three intelligence services. Now there's one. There were several different taxation systems here. Today, there's one, and so on.

KIRA KAY: But these improvements masked a fragility in the political structure of the country, one that 14 years of peace have not fixed, one that now risks plunging Bosnia Herzegovina back towards failure, just as life in places like Kozarac was beginning to feel normal, and just as the international mission here was hoping to leave.

The Dayton agreement carved the country into two autonomous ethnic entities, a Serb majority area called Republika Srpska, and a federation predominantly of Bosniak Muslims and Catholic Croats. On top of this sits a national layer of government with its own ethnically based structure. This has been called the most over-governed countries in the world. There are three presidents here, each one representing a different ethnicity. There are 13 administrations, from the state down to the local level, with 160 ministers on the payroll. And the cost of all this government? A whopping 50 percent of the country's GDP.

SRECKO LATAL, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network: The Dayton Peace Accord was a monster. I mean, it -- it created a monster country.

KIRA KAY: Srecko Latal writes for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. He says this weak and complicated political system is now being manipulated by a new wave of nationalist politicians.

SRECKO LATAL: Bosnia Herzegovina right now is facing the most difficult crisis since the end of -- of its war. We have come into the situation where local leaders don't want to make it work. I mean, they deliberately block the work of joint state and entity institutions. And, as a result, we are facing a major deadlock on almost a complete level.

HARIS SILAJDZIC, president, Bosnia and Herzegovina: We do have these political tensions, and that's because of two divergent concepts. The one is of multicultural country. The other is of divided ethic country.

KIRA KAY: Haris Silajdzic is a veteran Bosniak Muslim politician who now serves as one of the country`s three national presidents. He says he wants a more unified government.

HARIS SILAJDZIC: All of us haven't done enough in the last 14 years to promote the positive values of what we call a modern society today. Bosnia Herzegovina should be a normal, Democratic country, with a priority of becoming a full member of NATO alliance and a member of the European Union.

Disagreement over Bosnia's future

KIRA KAY: Reform of Bosnia's political system is a requirement for the high representative to leave and for Bosnia's ultimate prize, European Union membership.

But Silajdzic's plan is a one-man/one-vote system that would have the side effect of putting greater power in the hands of the more populist Muslims, something Bosnia's Serbs say they will not allow.

Republika Srpska's capital, Banja Luka, has also come a long way since the war. There is some extra money to spend here from deals the Serbs have made on their own with countries like Russia. And the glistening new government headquarters sends the message: The Serbs plan on holding onto their autonomy.

Gordan Milosevic is an adviser to the Serb entity`s prime minister.

Is there a difference of opinion between what the Republika Srpska wants this country to look like and what the federation wants this country to look like?

GORDAN MILOSEVIC: Well, it is obvious. That's not a secret for anyone who knows Bosnia, that the main intention in Republic of Srpska is for Bosnia Herzegovina to remain strongly decentralized country, in line with Dayton peace agreement.

Those who are insisting on one-man/one-vote system, they are basically trying to provide for circumstances that would allow for only one people in Bosnia to rule this country and to become a dominant group.

KIRA KAY: Milosevic accuses the international community, through its Office of the High Representative, of siding with the Bosniak Muslims to undermine Serb authority. He says, the situation is unacceptable.

GORDAN MILOSEVIC: If there will be a foreign authority still imposing law after law, changing reality of this country, without even consulting us about that, what is our option? To pretend ignorant and to follow imposition after imposition, or to say, OK, if that's the game you want to play, please run this country then, but without us.

KIRA KAY: Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has gone even further, threatening to call an independence referendum.

The Office of the High Representative says, it isn't biased against Serbs, but Raffi Gregorian insists it is Dodik's government that is undermining the future of the country.

RAFFI GREGORIAN: The Republika Srpska, which most proclaims that they want us gone, are the ones who are doing the most to block completion of these objectives and conditions. If they had a -- we could have been gone two years ago, in 2007, for example, if they hadn't been talking about independence and secession, if they hadn't been blocking progress on the things that need to be done.

Ethnic tensions return

KIRA KAY: As the political disagreement degenerates further, the rhetoric has also begun to take on a poisonous ethnic tone. Last year, President Silajdzic called Republika Srpska a reward for genocide. But it is recent comments by Serb Prime Minister Dodik, accusing Muslims of staging some of the biggest wartime attacks against them, that has created the greatest outcry.

RAFFI GREGORIAN: It doesn't help when you have the Republika Srpska prime minister claiming that horrible war crimes for which people have been sentenced to life -- life in prison were in fact manufactured by the -- by the Bosniaks in order to make the Serbs look bad.

SRECKO LATAL: These tensions and animosities that were for all the past years present mostly only on the political level among local politicians now are slowly affecting ordinary people. And that is what is really dangerous.

There is no material for a larger-scale conflict. There are no more -- so many heavy weapons in this country. There are no more -- so many soldiers in this country. But there is enough for a major trouble that could and would continue shaking this situation in all of the Europe for the coming years.

KIRA KAY: Even though American and European diplomats have tried to mediate in recent weeks, it seems unlikely that an internal consensus can be reached anytime soon over the future structure of the country. Gordan Milosevic offers a stark perspective.

KIRA KAY: Do you think it's ever possible to have political discussion in this country that doesn't involve ethnicity, or will this always have to be the structure of the country?

GORDAN MILOSEVIC: It will always be the structure of this country, because this is such country. But it shouldn't -- people shouldn't try to neglect reality.

The way to deal with situation is to recognize situation. As long as someone has illusions or ideals that it can be changed, we will be nowhere.

KIRA KAY: Back in Kozarac, you get a different picture of Bosnia's current crisis, one where the problem isn't rooted in ethnicity, but in the halls of government. Sabahudin Garibovic thinks a secure future is possible only if leaders stop playing political games.

SABAHUDIN GARIBOVIC, Kozarac resident: Only if something changes in this country, starting from the authorities that obstruct everything good for the people of this country. They simply do not wish to help people have a better life.

KIRA KAY: And for all of Bosnia Herzegovina, the lasts steps in their transformation from fragile postwar state for now on hold, as politics spin further out of control.

JIM LEHRER: You can learn more about other fragile states online and watch stories on East Timor and Congo. Those are part of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting`s Fragile States project, in partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting. Find them and teaching materials by following a link from our Web site,