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July 31, 2006 3:00 am
Fighting stopped more than a decade ago, yet Bosnia-Herzegovina still stumbles over one wartime question: what to do with the Serb mini-state within its borders?
The dilemma over the Republika Srpska, or "RS", an autonomous Serb-dominated republic in the country's east, has resurfaced following its refusal to let go of its own police force.
This is seen as the final obstacle to Bosnian association talks with the European Union, and long-term EU ties are one of the few political goals on which Serbs, Croats and Bosniak Muslims can easily agree.
But Bosnian Serb leaders say police powers - together with the RS's entire administration - are vital to guarantee their community's survival alongside more numerous Muslim co-citizens.
The question of the RS police force was on the table last week when Milorad Dodik, the republic's prime minister, met Geoffrey Hoon, British minister for European affairs, in London.
Mr Dodik says Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot move forward on EU integration without first accepting the Serb-dominated mini-state within its borders.
"I am not against police reform. I am for it, based on principles which the European Union has recognised," he told the FT.
But demands for police reform have deepened political divisions between ethnic Serbs and the rest of the country. Leaders in the loose Muslim-Croat federation, the other internal grouping, say the republic is holding up the country for a backward-looking nationalist agenda.
Muslim leaders long resisted embracing the republic, a separatist mini-state formed in 1992 and still tainted by the ethnic cleansing that ensued. The 1995 Dayton peace treaty recognised the RS, but the zig-zagging ceasefire line was not supposed to divide the country forever, they say.
The Serb statelet agreed last year to cancel its own police law, a compromise that earned Mr Dodik international praise. But this year, with multi-tiered parliamentary elections scheduled for early October, he has gone back on his word, EU officials say.
Mr Dodik claims Bosnia-Herzegovina's police restructuring agreement "has been badly interpreted", however. He says a new, 11-member unified police directorate includes only one member from the RS, who is easily overruled by a hostile majority.
The argument is about who controls police budgets as much as who commands the forces, Mr Dodik says. "The problem began when we suggested what should be said in the Bosnia-Herzegovina law: that the RS police is a functioning part of the unified structure."
This way, police in nearly half of the country would still follow orders from Banja Luka, capital of the RS, rather than Sarajevo.
This year, Bosnia-Herzegovina's parliament narrowly voted down a constitutional framework that would have strengthened the central government while preserving the three-way ethnic balance, including autonomy for the RS. Although leaders from all three main factions had agreed on the US-brokered accord, Croat and Muslim parties were torn apart over the proposed concessions.
The EU, frustrated by the constitutional delay, insists the RS should pose no problem as long as the wider state works too. "It was done just to get peace," says Christian Schwarz-Schilling, EU special representative in charge of the international protectorate for Bosnia-Herzegovina. "But now the RS has started to live."
Other European states also maintain distinct internal entities. Carl Bildt, the first high representative after Dayton, says RS has become "as permanent as Scotland".
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