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Top Representative Warns: Bosnia Still Fragile - 2002-10-23

With U.N. peacekeepers preparing to leave Bosnia for good at the end of the year, the European High Representative for Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, warns widespread corruption and organized crime are threatening to destabilize the Balkan country. Lord Ashdown and special U.N. envoy Jacques Klein appealed to the Security Council in New York Wednesday to continue providing money and experts for reforms.

International envoys agree Bosnia has made a lot of progress since war ended in the Balkan state seven years ago. Nearly a million refugees have returned. An indigenous, multi-ethnic police force is being built, albeit slowly. And neighboring states, Croatia and Serbia, are growing into democracies, which experts say, will help keep the peace throughout the region.

But Europe's top representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, warns Bosnia remains fragile. Several areas of the country, he says, can erupt into chaos at any time. He and his international partners are trying urgently to establish the rule of law in Bosnia, with an independent judiciary.

However, Bosnia, according to Lord Ashdown, is being critically challenged by organized crime, which is draining an already unstable economy. He says Bosnia is bleeding financially, losing hundreds of millions of dollars every year to smuggling and corruption. He says the Bosnians themselves have to show they have the political will to fight crime if they expect the international community to continue supporting them.

He said, "If the international community, and here I speak to my Bosnian colleagues, if the international community is to be expected to go on supporting B&H (Bosnia-Herzegovina), if the world's taxpayers are to go on building the new hospitals and schools, then they must know they are subsidizing reform not racketeers."

Meanwhile, Lord Ashdown implored the international community not to forsake Bosnia. Noting that foreign assistance to Bosnia is already slackening, he warned Bosnia's poor economy could be its undoing. "B&H's enemy is now time. Aid is tapering off. Debts are mounting. Foreign private investment is not increasing to fill that gap. A glance at the economic indicators tells you that the patient is hovering between the serious and the critical list," he said.

The United Nations is already drawing down its international force in Bosnia, with the Europeans taking over police training and law enforcement responsibilities on the first of January. The U.N. force has been there since 1995.

Observers of the Balkan scene since the region collapsed into war in the early 1990s, have expressed concern over what they see as the persistent ethnic resentments and rivalries in the various states. They fear the world's pre-occupation with the crisis in Iraq will distract the most powerful nations from the job that still needs to be done in Bosnia.