The Dayton Peace Accord of 1995 ended war in the former Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia, but the accord also led to the creation of a largely dysfunctional government that is essentially divided into three often feuding ethnic entities: Muslim, Croat and Serb. In an effort to end years of political turmoil, Bosnia's ethnic leaders embarked about 12 months on a tortuous path to constitutional reform that last month fell just short of being approved, but Bosnian officials and observers remain optimistic.
In late April, the reform proposals fell just two votes short of approval in the Bosnian parliament. Several Bosnian Croats joined by a few Bosnian Muslims voted against the constitutional and legal amendments that had previously won support from seven Muslim, Serb and Croat parties. The constitutional reforms were meant to strengthen Bosnia's weak central government and replace the current three-member rotating presidency with a single president.
Donald Hays, a U.S. diplomat who served as the United Nations deputy high representative in Sarajevo, worked for months facilitating the reform negotiations. Now diplomat in residence at Washington's U.S. Institute of Peace, Hays is optimistic that the reform package will ultimately be implemented.
"I think this is a process by which you get real ownership of a document that forms the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina and it is going to happen," said Mr. Hays. "It would be better if it happened sooner in order to facilitate their desires to be members of Euro-Atlantic institutions and the desire to bring prosperity to their citizens."
Bosnia faces parliamentary elections in October and several observers believe that it is critical that immediate action be taken to try, well before the elections, to get the measures approved by the current parliament.
Sulejman Tihic is the Muslim, or Bosniak, member of the Bosnian presidency. Following meetings Thursday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice-President Dick Cheney, Mr. Tihic told a Washington audience that he too is optimistic that the constitutional reforms will be approved.
"I took this opportunity, as I was visiting the United States of America, to ask for help in passing these amendments, because it is really in the best interests of Bosnia- Herzegovina and its citizens," he said. "And it was quite close. And that [help] is to be done by the end of this month."
Bob Hand, an adviser to the U.S. Congress' commission on security and cooperation in Europe, has spent considerable time in Sarajevo. While saying he wishes the reform proposals had received more support from Bosnians, he agrees that they are a significant step forward in creating a vital Bosnian state. Hand also says that it is important to act quickly as the parliamentary election campaign could divert attention to other issues.
"Maybe this shock of this setback will reinvigorate efforts and allow people to reach across [ethnic] differences on how far to go and things like that," said Mr. Hand. "And maybe put things back together so they can move forward.
Along with its attempt to reform the constitution, the Bosnian government is also working to create a single national army and police force. These steps, Bosnian leaders believe, will help them achieve their goal of gaining membership in the European Union and the NATO alliance. Without them however, Bosnia's forward movement is likely to be halted.