New Highway Bogs Down In Bitterly Divided Bosnia

Fans of Bosnian and Croatian national soccer teams clashed in Sarajevo before a game last month. Many Bosnian Croats later cheered for Croatia.
Fans of Bosnian and Croatian national soccer teams clashed in Sarajevo before a game last month. Many Bosnian Croats later cheered for Croatia. (Associated Press)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 1, 2007

CORRIDOR 5C, Bosnia -- In a country where most roads are so narrow and winding that passing means playing the odds, the four-lane stretch of asphalt north of Sarajevo was supposed to be Bosnia's fast track to the future, part of a 210-mile superhighway linking Budapest to the Adriatic Sea.

Instead, the $5 billion project, launched in 2002, has become a symbol of Bosnia's inability to overcome its acrimonious past. Construction has stalled, with only 12 paved miles open for travel even as neighboring countries near completion of their adjoining routes. Some newspapers here have sarcastically referred to it by the local word for toilet, which sounds like the highway's name.

Obstructing the project are lingering forms of the same ethnic divides that fueled three years of civil war in the 1990s.

Muslim and ethnic Croat officials in the national government in Sarajevo contend that major undertakings such as Bosnia's largest-ever public works project should be coordinated from the capital. But the Serb minority, which tried to secede during the war and today only grudgingly accepts being part of the country, fights almost all forms of national authority. Serb leaders have yet to allow construction to begin on segments in the zone of the country that they dominate, saying that road building should be a local responsibility.

The dispute "is a symptom of the fundamental issue in this country, which is a disagreement about its character," said Transportation Minister Bozo Ljubic, a Croat, who oversees the project. "Our crisis is this: Are we one country or two? Is our future together or divided?"

Those questions have come to a head this summer as leaders of the country's three main ethnic groups prepared for talks this week aimed at smoothing Bosnia's long-sought entry into the European Union. At times, the rhetoric grew so heated that Bosnia's international overseers issued stern warnings to rein it in.

Under the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which ended the war, Bosnia was split into two autonomous zones. Muslims, who represent about 50 percent of the population, predominate in the zone known as the Federation. Most of Bosnia's Croats, who represent perhaps 15 percent of the population, live in the Federation as well. Serbs, meanwhile, making up around 35 percent of the population, are the vast majority in a zone known as the Republika Srpska (literally "republic of Serbs").

In a June letter to the United Nations, Haris Silajdzic, Bosnia's wartime prime minister and now the Muslim representative in the country's three-pronged presidency, proposed eliminating the system of autonomous ethnic rule in favor of a more centralized state.

"Dayton's divisions were necessary to end the war, but we have the majority of citizens, and their will -- for a strong multiethnic state -- should be respected," Silajdzic said in a recent interview. "We cannot allow anyone to cement a situation that is the product of ethnic cleansing." He said he considers Srpska, which includes lands where Serb forces killed or evicted Muslims and Croats during the war, to be an ill-gotten gain.

Srpska's prime minister, Milorad Dodik, a polished former businessman, responded with his own rhetorical barrage, declaring that any attempt to abolish the zones would trigger an eventual referendum in Srpska on whether to secede. Dodik also announced plans to open offices representing Srpska in European capitals and in Washington and has been fighting to retain a separate Srpska police force, which many Muslims associate with war crimes.

Last week, he tied Srpska's future to that of neighboring Kosovo, which is technically part of Serbia though under U.N. rule and currently locked in independence talks. "It would suit us if Kosovo declared independence," he told Srpska television. "We could say, 'How can they do it and we cannot?' "

Dodik said during an interview in a restaurant on the outskirts of Banja Luka, the Srpska capital, that Serbs must control their own destiny. "Bosnia is divided, not just on the surface, but essentially," he said. "The more people are pushed, the more stability is jeopardized. Silajdzic's policy is making a bid for Muslim domination, and we cannot accept that."

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