International official: Bosnian Serbs seek to split country

UNITED NATIONS — The top international official in Bosnia warned Tuesday that ethnic Serb leaders are making a concerted effort to split the country, or failing that to roll back many reforms achieved during the last 25 years, and he called for “a decisive stand” to stop any division.

Valentin Inzko told the U.N. Security Council the challenge to Bosnia’s once multiethnic society comprising Serbs, Muslims and Croats is being led by the Bosnian Serbs’ top politician, Milorad Dodik, who is the Serb member of the country’s three-member presidency.

He said the Serbs’ campaign “could have political and security implications not only for the country, but also the region, and the rest of Europe.”

In what he said is likely his last briefing to the council after 12 years as the international community’s “high representative” in Bosnia, Inzko strongly criticized what he called “the destructive long-term policy” of authorities in the Serb region, known as Republika Srpska.

The region’s National Assembly adopted a measure in March that leaves open the option “for the so-called `peaceful dissolution’ of the country,” Inzko said. In April, leaders of Republika Srpska’s governing coalition parties met and Dodik announced the formation of negotiating teams, making clear the region “reserves the right to finally decide on its future status.”

The Bosnia war — the worst carnage in Europe since World War II — was fueled by the Bosnian Serbs’ 1992 declaration of their own state within Bosnia, and their separatist ambitions remain strong.

Bosnia remains torn by divisions stemming from the 1992-95 war among Serbs, Croats and Muslims during the breakup of Yugoslavia. A U.S.-brokered peace deal signed in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, divided Bosnia into a federation composed of two autonomous regions — Republika Srpska for Bosnian Serbs and one for Muslims and Croats.

The high representative oversees the civilian implementation of the Dayton agreement and is filled by the Peace Implementation Council, which consists of 55 nations.

Inzko stressed to the Security Council that “Dayton does not give the right to entities to secede.”

He said the Bosnian Serbs’ actions have “poisoned” the political atmosphere and sidelined reforms at a time when the country is “in the grip” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bosnia should be firmly on the path to membership in the European Union, he said, “but here we are today and one of its political leaders is openly advocating dividing the country, disparaging and mocking the EU in the process.”

Inzko warned that even if a breakup is prevented, the Serbs’ aim is “a perpetually dysfunctional” country. That is already happening “in the near-paralysis of the highest institutions … including the presidency, the Council of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly,” he said.

He said Bosnia’s multiethnic and diverse society that existed before the war “has all but disappeared” and defending multiethnic spaces has become more difficult than creating single ethnicity ones.

“Hate speech, the glorification of war criminals, and revisionism or outright genocide denial, despite the verdicts of international judicial bodies, remain very common in political discourse,” he said.

“We must not allow this process to lead to further ethnic or territorial divisions,” Inzko said.

The divisions within Bosnia also reflect a mounting conflict between the West and Russia over the future of the Balkans. While the West wishes to see the still-volatile region reform and eventually join the EU and NATO, Russia has used its historic ties with Serbs to undermine this idea.

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Anna Evstigneeva, accused Inzko of being “very misbalanced,” saying he blames Bosnian Serbs and Croats “for every difficulty in the way of national reconciliation” and engages in “scaremongering.”

She called the situation in Bosnia “rather stable,” saying “it poses no threat to the international peace and security.”

Evstigneeva said a resolution adopted by Republika Srpska’s parliament March 21 demanding that the Office of the High Representative close and hand its authorities to the national Bosnian government “cannot be ignored.” She reiterated Russia’s demand for the office’s “soonest closure.”

But several speakers said conditions adopted in 2008 for closure of the office have not been met, including constitutional reforms and other measures set by the EU.

The United States, EU member Ireland, the United Kingdom and other council members all strongly backed Bosnia remaining a single, united, multi-ethnic and democratic nation.

“There is no future for either of the entities outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said, stressing that now is the time for the country to meet the criteria to graduate from international supervision by the high representative.

“That means first and foremost tackling the rampant corruption that threatens the rule of law,” she said. “Right now, corrupt politicians, a judiciary under political influence, public offices that promote personal or party interests, and state-owned enterprises that prioritize patronage, all enable corruption to thrive. The result: The country is losing its talented young people.”

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