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Joint Border Patrols in Bosnia

Having lost patience with obstructionist Bosnian politicians, the High Representative for Bosnia has imposed legislation creating the country's first unified border service.
By Janez Kovac

More than a year, Bosnian Serb, Croat and Moslem leaders have been unable to overcome their "national interests" to agree terms for the formation of a joint border service. The legislation is crucial to shoring up Bosnia's porous borders, clamping down on smuggling and cleaning up the corrupt taxation and customs system currently controlled by the ruling political parties in each entity, rather than by a state service.


A joint border service was originally proposed at the Madrid peace-implementation conference in 1997. Bosnia's joint presidency agreed to the establishment of the service in New York in November 1999.


"Bosnia and Herzegovina urgently needs a border service," said Bosnia's senior Western mediator, High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch in his press release, explaining why he had intervened to impose the law himself. "It is key to Bosnia's integration in Europe. Every country in Europe must have control of its borders," he said.


"The border service will help combat smuggling, crime and illegal immigration, which are big problems for Bosnia-Herzegovina. It will also increase customs revenues for the Entities, which can be used to pay for government services, such as the building and running of good schools and hospitals, new roads and economic recovery including the creation of jobs," the press release read.


The law imposed by Petritsch provides for a unified border service that will be regionally constituted according to Bosnia's pre-war ethnic make-up. The service will have responsibility for monitoring all traffic through border crossings and within a ten-kilometre radius of Bosnia's borders.


In co-ordination with the Office of the High Representative, the UN mission in Bosnia has already organised the training of the first ethnically mixed group of Bosnian border service officers, in Graz, Austria.


From the outset those Bosnian Serb and Croat leaders who view Bosnia only as a lose union of half-independent entities opposed the creation of a joint border service, which threatens to reduce the powers of the entities' institutions.


Furthermore, some local leaders are believed to be involved with criminals who exploit Bosnia's porous borders to smuggle goods in and out of the country without paying customs duties and taxes. International organisations claim such activity deprives the Bosnian budgets of hundreds of thousands of German marks in unpaid revenues.


Even when faced with strong international pressure, Bosnian Serb and Croat leaders tried to soften the proposed legislation in an effort to establish parallel border services in each entity.


The last time the law was stalled in the Bosnian joint parliament, Bosnian Serb deputies voted against the legislation. Yet only recently Milorad Dodik, prime minister of Republika Srpska (RS), the Bosnian Serb-held half of the country, had promised the law would be adopted without hindrance.


It is still unclear why Bosnian Serb deputies rejected the legislation despite Dodik's assurances, but the situation resembles the obstructionist strategy of Bosnian Serb wartime leader and war crimes suspect, Radovan Karadzic. At a secret meeting in late 1996, Karadzic instructed the then hard-line leadership in Republika Srpska to stall by all possible means the creation of any joint institutions and legislation, forcing the Office of the High Representative to impose legislation unilaterally.


According to reports in the Bosnian media, on January 17, Bosnian Serb deputies in the Bosnian House of Representatives described Petritsch's decision to impose a joint border service law as undemocratic and claimed they would file a complaint with the Bosnian constitutional court.


But following Petritsch's announcement imposing the law, senior Bosnian Serb, Croat and Moslem leaders promised to introduce the legislation and create the unified border service.


In his press release, Petritsch said he was "utterly dissatisfied with the inability and unwillingness of the Serb delegates to the BiH House of Representatives to represent the interests of the honest people of BiH."


"I will not allow a few irresponsible state representatives from RS to dash an entire country's hopes for a prosperous and open future. These officials claim to be protecting the so-called national interests of the RS and its citizens. But, as a matter of fact, they are actually harming the development of their entity and the well-being of their citizens with this kind of obstructionism," Petritsch said. He also pledged to do his "utmost to help create a professional service that will fight corruption and crime on the border."


The failure to adopt the border service law is only the most recent in the series of shortcomings displayed by the Bosnian authorities in establishing necessary state legislation and infrastructure. Throughout the past year most sessions of the Bosnian parliaments, both on the state and entity level, ended in protracted political disputes and few concrete results. The introduction of so few pieces of legislation forced Petritsch to intervene and impose essential laws.


Such behaviour has led to increasing frustration and impatience within the international community, which has issued demands recently for radical political and economic reform in Bosnia.


"This must be a decisive year, a year when there is a major change of course and a time for the elected officials and citizens of BiH to take charge of their own future," said Robert Barry, head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Bosnia. "The choices made this year will shape the political and economic life of this country for a long time to come," Barry said.


Janez Kovac is a journalist working in Sarajevo and a regular contributor to IWPR.


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