Bosnia tensions live on despite Mladic capture
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — With Ratko Mladic's capture, the main perpetrators of Bosnia's war are either behind bars or dead. But the ethnic divisions they fomented live on, in a dysfunctional country tormented by the same mistrust that provoked Europe's worst bloodshed since World War II.
New violence among Bosnia's Serbs, Croats and Bosniak Muslims is unlikely, with the international community keeping a watchful eye out for trouble. But keeping the lid on simmering tensions is about all the European Union, U.S. and other powers have been able to accomplish in the 16 years since the fighting formally ended.
Bosnia today is not at war — but it's not really at peace either. The country is treading water as it waits for a life line from the EU, the U.S. and other nations.
But that rescue comes with conditions — creation of a strong centrally governed nation. That is endorsed by most Bosniaks and Croats but opposed by Bosnian Serbs, perpetuating the postwar political stalemate.
The EU has told Bosnia that if it wishes to join, it must create a stronger central government. But on the street, different visions of what Bosnia's future should be mirror the divisions at the top.
In Banja Luka, capital of the Serb part of Bosnia, Igor Gajic snorts in derision when asked about living in an ethnically unified Bosnia.
"I don't even know its anthem," he says.
As he speaks, about 2,000 protesters are demonstrating in the mountain village of Pale — a Bosnian Serb wartime stronghold — against Thursday's arrest of Mladic in neighboring Serbia. Mladic faces charges that include directing the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, and involvement in the relentless four-year siege of Sarajevo.
Among the demonstrators in Pale: a dog, with "Tadic" spray-painted on his body.
The inference is clear: Serbs here consider Serbian President Boris Tadic a traitor for ordering the capture of the Bosnian Serb general who perpetuated the Bosnian war's worst atrocities in his quest for the right of Bosnian Serbs to split from the rest of the country.
To the west, in Mostar, Bosnian Croat Vjekoslav Barcic, 48, speaks of an exodus of his ethnic kin to neighboring Croatia, which readily grants them passports.
"There is very little left of us," he says. "It is very hard to love this country the way it is."
In Sarajevo, meanwhile, 87-year-old Munevera Ljutovic blames the Serbs for the war — and the country's postwar paralysis.
"Who knows when this will heal," Ljutovic said.
Such dissent permeates most of the country's institutions, from the lowest tiers of political power to its three person presidency. Meant to ensure power sharing, the presidency has instead become a stumbling block to nation building because its members cannot agree what that nation should look like.
In stances harking back to the origins of the war, Serb presidency member Nebojsa Radmanovic wants the Serb part of Bosnia to widen its autonomy, if not split away. But Bakir Izetbegovic and Zeljko Komsic, the Bosniak and Croat members, advocate a unified state of the three ethnic groups with a strong central government.
The Serb view reflects those held two decades ago by the likes of Mladic and his bosses, late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader now on trial before a U.N. tribunal. It was the Bosnian Serb drive to split from Bosnia and join with Serbia as Bosnia seceded from Yugoslavia that provided the main spark to the war.
The postwar deal split the country into two highly autonomous regions — one for the Serbs and the other shared by the Bosniaks and Croats. The two regions are only loosely linked by a central government, parliament and the presidency.
That allows Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Serb republic, to push the envelope on secession as a lever for concessions that Croats and Bosniaks fear will weaken central institutions. Dodik recently canceled a referendum that would have questioned the authority of the country's judicial system — and of Valentin Inzko, the country's EU-appointed administrator — but only after forcing assurances from top EU officials that his concerns will be addressed.
In April, the Bosnian Serb parliament said it will question Inzko's authority and the legality of every decision he has made.
Such differing visions have kept Bosnia's government barely able to function, frustrating EU- and U.S.-led negotiations over constitutional changes to simplify the political setup and strengthen the central government. It also permeates almost every level of society.
For months, Bosnia was banned from international soccer matches because its national federation refused to replace its Serb-Croat-Bosniak leadership with a single president. The federation decided on a single head only after emergency mediation by FIFA, the international soccer federation.
Such sectarian differences leave the nation mired in economic hardship and political uncertainty — and as a potential jump-off point for Islamic radicalism.
Bosnia is "a weak, decentralized state," notes the U.S. State Department in a report that blames Serb officials for trying to undermine federal structures. The Serb efforts hampered attempts to combat terrorism and terrorist financing, said the report, leaving Bosnia "vulnerable to exploitation as a potential staging ground for terrorist operations in Europe."
Comments by the top Serb and Bosniak candidates during Bosnia's last nationwide elections in February reflected the divide.
Dodik spoke scornfully of present-day Bosnia as an "absurd country," saying it would be best if the country fell apart peacefully. In turn, Bakir Izetbegovic, the son of wartime Bosniak leader Alija Izetbegovic, urged politicians to "find a middle line," declaring that "an accelerated progress on the path toward the European Union is the priority."
Political analyst Tanja Topic compared the pre-election campaign to one in 1990, when communist Yugoslavia had just collapsed and Bosnia was split along ethnic lines over whether it should become part of neighboring Serbia or be an independent multiethnic country.
"So, for exactly 20 years we have been spinning around in the same political pattern," Topic said.
George Jahn reported from New York.