Bosnia in worst crisis since war as Serb leader calls referendum

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Niccolo and Donkey
Bosnia in worst crisis since war as Serb leader calls referendum

Guardian UK

Ian Traynor

April 28, 2011


Bosnia is facing its worst crisis since the end of the war 16 years ago because of Serb secessionist policies aimed at paralysing the country, according to the leading international official overseeing the state.

Valentin Inzko, the Austrian diplomat who is the international community's high representative in Sarajevo, told the Guardian he would act to halt a referendum called by Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader, on whether to reject Bosnia's state war crimes court and special prosecutor's office established in 2005 by international decree.

Inzko said heavy European Union sanctions could be imposed on Dodik and his coterie if he did not back down from the vote, which the Bosnian Serb parliament approved by a huge majority this month.

"This is definitely the most serious crisis since the signing of the Dayton agreement [which ended the four-year war in 1995]," said Inzko. "Never before has such a referendum been planned. The intention is to roll back all the achievements. It challenges the role of the high representative. It would be a direct attack on the Dayton settlement ... I would repeal this law."

Dodik, the president of the Serbian half of Bosnia known as the Republika Srpska, pledged this week that he would not back down and that the vote would go ahead.

The decision to stage the referendum was posted officially on Wednesday, meaning the vote must take place within eight weeks. Dodik argued that the court and prosecutors were biased against Serbs and the court's authority should be rejected.

He claimed the Bosnian Muslim leadership, with international support, was bent on creating a domineering Islamic state.

Dodik regularly taunts the international envoys, who have struggled to manage Bosnia since the 90s. He professes no loyalty to a state called Bosnia-Herzegovina, and questions its viability. The referendum is seen as his most destabilising move and as a step towards Bosnia's breakup, which could trigger a war.

"Many think this referendum is a rehearsal for a future one on Republika Srpska status [secession], but those are just speculations, unrealistic at this time," he said last week.

The EU's new Balkan envoy, Miroslav Lajcak, is to go to Banja Luka, Dodik's base, to read him the riot act and order him to call off the vote, according to senior diplomats.

Inzko indicated that the international community was heading for a showdown with Dodik and that at some point in the next fortnight he would invoke his official powers to try to stop the referendum.

"I hope [Lajcak] can talk them out of doing this. Otherwise I will have to act. The [Bosnian Serb] law would be annulled. The deadline can't be very long, 10 days to two weeks maximum."

Lajcak is expected to warn Dodik that if he defies the international referendum ban, he could face EU sanctions similar to those placed on Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi: a ban on travel and the freezing of his assets and bank accounts.

EU governments recently agreed a "toolbox" of carrots and sticks to reverse years of failure in Bosnia. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, is about to appoint a new "special representative" in Sarajevo with beefed up powers.

The showdown with Dodik is likely to intensify Bosnia's dangerous drift and paralysist. The deadlock since elections last October has left the country without a central government for seven months, with no breakthrough in sight.

Describing Bosnia as the "principal challenge to stability in Europe this year", James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, has called Bosnia the "principal challenge to stability in Europe this year"last month said last month that the country was "in disarray".

"Ethnic Serb rhetoric about seceding from Bosnia will continue to inflame passions," he reported. "Ethnic agendas still dominate the political process … US-EU efforts to broker compromises have met with little success."

The Muslim-Croat half of the country is also acutely dysfunctional. Bosnian Croat leaders, based in Mostar in the south-west, are in effect boycotting the federation government and parliament after losing out in coalition negotiations. They are complaining bitterly about being ignored by the larger Bosnian Muslim community, and last week formed the Croatian National Assembly to co-ordinate policy-making across ethnic Croat majority areas. "I don't have a problem with this if it is constitutional," said Inzko. "We will see if they establish parallel structures or not. That's very important. Then I'd have to do something."

The Croats are demanding that Bosnia be split into three along ethnic lines to include a separate Croatian entity. Dodik is encouraging these demands to hasten the breakup of the country he constantly calls illegitimate and unworkable.

Senior diplomats in Sarajevo say that would be a belated triumph for Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic , the Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders who led the war effort to destroy the country and were indicted for genocide. "That would mean Srebrenica [where Serbs murdered 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males] would be abroad for the Bosnian Muslims," said a senior diplomat. "The international community will never accept that."