Bosnia: Hardliners Regroup

Nationalists across Bosnia have exploited Western preoccupation with Afghanistan to reinforce their hard-line positions.

Bosnia: Hardliners Regroup

Nationalists across Bosnia have exploited Western preoccupation with Afghanistan to reinforce their hard-line positions.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

With the eyes of the world glued on Afghanistan, hard-line nationalists are emerging from their bunkers in Bosnia-Herzegovina to block hard-won political, institutional and economic reforms.

Nationalist efforts have brought to a near standstill advances achieved by Bosnia's new moderate leaders who gained power in the elections of November, 2000. As a result, local and international experts say, the country may be heading into its biggest economic and social crisis this winter.

Local and Western analysts say nationalists have exploited diminished international interest in the Balkans following the terrorist attacks against the US on September 11.

Obstructions appear particularly strong in Republika Srpska, RS. More than 12,000 health workers went on strike on October 22 and defence ministry employees have threatened to follow suit in a few days.

Discontent is fuelled by the knowledge that average pensions and salaries in RS remain significantly lower than in the Muslim-Croat Federation.

At the root of the obstruction here is the hard-line Serb Democratic Party, SDS, which became a coalition partner after the last election. Since then, the SDS has managed to sabotage reforms not only in the republic but also in the Bosnian state parliament.

In the state assembly, the SDS has blocked several key laws on the economy. "These crucial pieces of legislation are building blocks for a workable economy in Bosnia and Herzegovina," said Patrick Wolf, a spokesman for Bosnia's top Western mediator, High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch. "As such, they have a direct bearing on the lives and the prosperity of all citizens of this country."

Petritsch issued an open letter of complaint to the speaker of the RS assembly, Dragan Kalinic, saying the entity's delegates in the state legislature were effectively preventing the introduction of the laws.

One area where RS hardliners have been particularly obstructive is in privatisation. They're resisting the process because some of them occupy key managerial positions in lucrative government-controlled companies like Telecom RS and the Modrica Oil Refinery. Money from these enterprises flows into SDS coffers as well as the pockets of its leaders.

Faced with this obstruction, Damir Miljevic, privatisation adviser to the premier Mladen Ivanic, resigned a month ago. Commenting on the resignation, Ivanic agreed "some forces want to slow down privatisation". But he did little about it, as a few weeks later another of the premier's key people, RS agriculture minister Rajko Latinovic, also quit.

Latinovic told the media he had done so because the SDS is "not interested in the development of Republika Srpska but cares only about satisfying party interests". According to sources close to the RS government, finance minister Milenko Vracar could soon follow in Latinovic's footsteps. In a recent sardonic remark, Vracar declared, "Taxes have to be paid even by company owners who may belong to the SDS."

The SDS is also blocking cooperation between the RS government and the Hague war crimes tribunal. Bosnian Serb leaders have dodged this issue for years since it would force them to arrest and extradite top war crimes suspects, like Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who enjoy wide popularity among the Serbs.

A few weeks ago, the RS parliament adopted a law on cooperation with

The Hague but this was considered to be yet another delaying tactic since the Dayton peace accord already obliges both Bosnian entities to do so.

This was all the more evident when after the law was passed, the SDS blocked its publication in the Official Gazette, a necessary stage before the law comes into force. And then the justice and interior ministry couldn't agree on who should take responsibility for pushing the legislation through.

Many local and Western analysts are now convinced that Ivanic and his government will soon fall unless he distances himself from the SDS and reconstructs his cabinet.

Some experts, including the respected International Crisis Group, ICG, recommend cutting financial aid to the Bosnian Serbs unless they clear the way for reforms.

"The way ahead is to put more pressure on the RS so as to strengthen those pragmatists who understand very well that Bosnia cannot

exist half pauperized and half European," the ICG said in a recent analysis. "Potential sanctions must be as hurtful as the benefits are alluring."

RS is not alone in facing economic and social troubles caused by political obstruction. These problems are also increasing in the Federation, especially in territories controlled by the hard-line Croat Democratic Union, HDZ.

While HDZ, compared with SDS, has significantly less sway at the state and federal level, it still causes constant trouble in the cantons it controls. As a result, the Federation authorities in these regions have very little, if any, authority over administration, public finances, the judiciary and police.

In these areas, especially in southern Bosnia, the HDZ also controls most of the state-owned companies and even private businesses. One of the biggest and most lucrative companies there, Aluminium Mostar, is tightly controlled by the HDZ which has for weeks been preventing the federal authorities from conducting a financial audit.

In addition, the HDZ is stepping up efforts to topple the mayor of Mostar, Neven Tomic. During and after the war, Mostar became a test case of reconciliation and coexistence between Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks, as well as of general progress in the Federation.

Removal of Tomic, who was kicked out of the HDZ for his moderate attitude, would represent an enormous setback for the peace process. Furthermore, a few weeks ago the HDZ congress re-elected Ante Jelavic as party president, despite the fact that he was earlier this year removed from the party leadership and the Bosnian tripartite presidency by Petritsch. Re-election of Jelavic was an obvious slap in the face for the international community.

A week ago, the former ruling Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action, SDA, also held a congress to elect new party leadership. Like the HDZ, the SDA elected a number of hard-liners to leadership positions, including former federal premier Edhem Bicakcic who is accused of fraud and misuse of power.

At the congress, charismatic Bosniak leader and war-time president Alija

Izetbegovic finally stepped down as the party president. He had held the

position ever since the party was established. The congress bestowed a life-long, honorary SDA title on Izetbegovic and elected him chairman of an advisory board which means he will undoubtedly continue to influence key party developments.

However, some believe that only Izetbegovic was able to control the hard-line wing of the SDA and now that he is officially out of the way, extremists may seek to attain full control over the party.

Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor. Gordana Katana is a Banja Luka correspondent for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.

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