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Bosnian Reforms Slowed in Aftermath of October 1 Elections

In the wake of a polarizing October 1st election result in Bosnia Herzegovina analysts are scaling back their expectations of early progress in strengthening the country's weak central government.

Balkans analyst Steven Meyer of Washington's National Defense University says the election hardened the positions of Bosnia's feuding Serb, Muslim (Bosniak) and Croat factions.

"I think the elections that were held on the first of October in Bosnia are very, very important," said Steven Meyer. "And they're very important not because of why Washington believes is important, but they're important because what they have done is to have solidified the ethnic division of the country."

In both parts of the divided country the election strengthened ethnically based parties reluctant to embrace compromise and reconciliation. In the Bosniak-Croat federation encompassing the center of the country, the leading party called for abolishing the ethnic Serb entity that comprises one half of Bosnia's territory. In the Serb entity the leader of the largest party threatened to hold a referendum on joining with Serbia.

Bruce Hitchner, an American academic active in promoting constitutional revisions in Bosnia, concedes that the election has slowed needed reforms.

"There are more interests aligned with maintaining the status quo than there are for conducting reforms," said Bruce Hitchner. "Because to carry out constitutional reforms means paying a price in terms of political power of the existing party structure in Bosnia."

Last March 8 major Bosnian parties agreed to constitutional reforms that would strengthen the central government and diminish the power of the rival entities. Those proposals narrowly failed to win parliamentary approval.

Both the European Union and the United States have appealed to Bosnian politicians to reinvigorate needed reforms, beginning with the creation of a unified police force. There is concern that a weak and divided Bosnia could destabilize the Balkans during the critical time that the international community is seeking to resolve the contentious issue of Kosovo's future status. NATO and EU-led peacekeeping forces are posted in both Bosnia and nearby Kosovo.

Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader advocates negotiations between all three of Bosnia's ethnic groups. Speaking during a visit to Washington, Mr. Sanader warned against any imposed solution in Bosnia.

"To impose solutions to any of those three is not correct," said Ivo Sanader. "And that will be the Croatian position: autonomous Bosnia Herzegovina, sovereign Bosnia Herzegovina, no division, no partition, no referendum in Republika Srpska."

Croatia share a long border with nearly land-locked and mountainous Bosnia.

Tufts University professor Hitchner says Bosnia's political elite must recognize the implications of the winding down of the international presence in Sarajevo.

"The responsibility for constitutional reform and governmental reform in general will lie squarely on the political parties that have emerged from the election," he said. "And [after the High Representative departs in April] there will be no international help in terms of moving this process forward."

The high European Union representative in Bosnia, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, says it is unacceptable that the reform process has come to a halt. He says reforms are essential if Bosnia is to register progress in its application to join the 25 nation European Union.