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Opinion: Bosnia’s tough choices

October elections could well decide the long-term viability of Bosnia as a unified state.

The global economic recession has further exacerbated political tensions, escalating nationalist rhetoric. Leaders of the two entities have clashed over a host of political and economic reforms needed to bring Bosnia closer to minimum standards for joining the European Union. Recently, Milorad Dodik, prime minister of the RS, announced that only international intervention was holding the country together and that it was now time to consider its dissolution.

Although international involvement was once the bright spot in the Balkan tragedy, its ability to influence outcomes continues to diminish. Recently, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos (who is currently leading the EU’s effort) traveled to Sarajevo to continue pressing Bosnia’s leaders to break the impasse and step up the pace of economic and political reform. The diplomats announced they had made progress in the talks, but produced no agreement or commitment from the various factions on constitutional reform.

The truth of the matter is that this international diplomatic effort has been hamstrung by the increasingly divergent views coming from Washington and Brussels on what to do next in the Bosnia. This is not just disappointing but it could have grave implications for the country’s future.

After a decade of relative success and notable achievements, complacency has become the norm and the united front that was once the hallmark of international involvement has disintegrated. The U.S. began to withdraw its forces at the onset of the George W. Bush administration and has continued to shift its focus away from the country since 9/11. Meanwhile, although the EU pledged to step up and manage Bosnia’s transition, it is confronted with competing global and regional commitments, donor fatigue and resource constraints.

Washington has been more inclined to keep in place the Office of High Representative that was created under the Dayton Accords to guide and manage post-war reconstruction and political and economic development. Brussels however has expressed a desire to close OHR and further reduce EU troop levels down to a handful of monitors.

Sensing both international complacency and the growing chasm between Washington and Brussels, nationalist political parties and leaders have stepped up their attacks on moderates and are once again using nationalist rhetoric to stoke fears among the population. These tactics are almost certain to intensify as Bosnia prepares for national elections in the fall.

The next six months will be crucial for Bosnia and international statebuilding efforts. In October, Bosnians will face an important choice as they vote in national elections. If current trends continue, we are likely to see more economic stagnation, escalating exclusivist political rhetoric and continued stagnation in the Balkans.

The October national elections will not only determine the political leadership for the next four years, but could well decide the fate of economic reform, Bosnia’s aspirations for membership in the EU, and even the long-term viability of Bosnia as a unified state.

Jon Western is Five College Associate Professor of International Relations at Mount Holyoke College and Patrice McMahon is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.