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14 Years After War's End, Ethnic Divisions Once Again Gripping Bosnia

Fourteen years ago, Bosnia-Herzegovina was devastated by violent conflict and ethnic cleansing.

The Peace Implementation Council, a group of 55 nations and agencies that oversees the Dayton accords and appoints the viceroy, has been trying for years to abolish the position and restore full sovereignty to Bosnia. But foreign diplomats say they are not confident that Bosnia is ready to govern itself.

Valentin Inzko, an Austrian official who serves as the high representative, said Bosnia suffers from a "dependency syndrome" that dates back centuries, to when it was part of the Ottoman Empire.

He cited an ongoing political dispute that has left Mostar, a city evenly divided between Bosnian Muslims and Croats, without a budget or a functioning government. A delegation of firefighters and municipal workers visited Inzko in Sarajevo recently to plead with him to do something because they have gone unpaid for several months.

"I can easily intervene. I can declare a budget because people are desperate, they are hungry," Inzko said. "It's easy to do it, but to do it contributes to this dependency syndrome."

Challenges From Serbs

Under the Dayton accords, Bosnia was divided into two autonomous zones, each with its regional parliament. One zone is the Republika Srpska, or the Serb Republic; the other is known as the Federation, and it consists mostly of Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

Muslims represent about half of Bosnia's population, with Serbs accounting for about a third and Croats making up much of the rest. Nobody knows precise numbers, however, because the last census was taken in 1991.

In June, Inzko defused a much bigger crisis after lawmakers in the Serb Republic approved legislation challenging the authority of the national government in several areas, such as customs and law enforcement. Inzko nullified the legislation, ruling that it would undermine the Dayton accords, the legal framework that holds the country together.

Serb Republic lawmakers have tried to block the national government from consolidating power while effectively creating a separate state in their autonomous zone.

Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Serb Republic, has hinted that it might try to secede. He has also tangled with prosecutors and diplomats who have served under the high representative, saying they are biased against Serbs.

Raffi Gregorian, an American who serves as the deputy high representative, said the political mood in Bosnia began to sour three years ago after Dodik's party took power in the Serb Republic. Since then, he said, many politicians have tried to win votes by fanning ethnic fears and suspicions.

"Thank God there have been no physically violent incidents," he said. "But the rhetoric, according to people who have been here, is as bad as it's been since 1991."

In interviews, officials in Banja Luka, the city that serves as the capital of the Serb Republic, said they have no intention of seceding. They defended their efforts to prevent the national government from consolidating power.

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