Ethnic divisions threaten Bosnia again as Prime Minister quits over 'interference'

The Prime Minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina resigned yesterday, claiming that interference from the international community had made his job impossible. The exit of Nikola Spiric, a Bosnian Serb, plunged the ethnically divided state into its worst crisis since the war ended in 1995. "For 12 years, foreigners have run this country and this is not good," Mr Spiric said. "I resign and this is the only right decision."

Mr Spiric's departure comes after Miroslav Lajcak, the High Representative to Bosnia appointed by the United Nations and the European Union, introduced measures aimed at improving the efficiency of Bosnia's government. Mr Lajcak, a Slovak diplomat, reduced the number of ministers needed to be present to pass laws, preventing any one ethnic group from creating a deadlock by walking out. He called Mr Spiric's resignation "too emotional" and "completely irresponsible".

The arrival of Mr Lajcak was intended to help Bosnia achieve its long-term goal of joining the EU by speeding up the decision-making process in the country's often fractious central government. Instead of consensus, Mr Lajcak introduced the simple majority principle, which was fiercely opposed by Bosnian Serbs. They fear they will lose influence to the country's other ethnic groups and their semi-autonomous mini-state within Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The crippling legislative system was established in 1995 by the Dayton Peace accord, which ended three years of war between the Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs in Bosnia. The agreement divided the country into two mini-states – a Bosnian-Croat Federation and a Serb Republic – each with their own police, judiciary, parliaments and governments. In an attempt to unite the two factions into one state, centralised institutions and a rotating, three-person presidency were grafted on top. However, deep ethnic rivalries have impeded the work of central government ever since and no international effort has been able to glue the country together.

Critics say one key reason for this is that the war ended without a clear winner or loser, and the Dayton accord served only to cement the ethnic divisions which were so brutally apparent during the war. Multi-ethnic cities turned into mono-ethnic ones, as their populations moved to parts of Bosnia where one ethnic group dominated, taking their hatred and intolerance with them. The two mini-states have separate education systems, the country remains poor and economic recovery has been slow because of the persistent divisions. Full integration is fiercely opposed by the Bosnian Serbs, who look to Belgrade as their capital, rather than Sarajevo.

On Wednesday, Mr Lajcak's reforms won support from the steering board of Bosnia's Peace Implementation Council, which comprises more than 40 countries and overseas organisations and oversees the conditions of the peace agreement. However, his decisions were criticised by the nationalist government of the Serbian Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, who described them as another conspiracy against Serbs in the Balkan region, which would lead to independence for Kosovo and the "disappearance" of the Bosnian Serb Republic.

Earlier this week, Bosnian Serb leaders organised protest rallies against Mr Lajcak and appealed to Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, to "help endangered fellow Serbs". They may call a referendum on independence once Kosovo proclaims its autonomy. Analysts say this could destabilise the entire region.

The crisis in Bosnia cannot be solved by new elections. Under the law, the presidency – which alternates between a Bosniak, Serb and Croat leader – has to nominate a candidate for prime minister to be approved by the central parliament. Bosnian Serb MPs are unlikely to support any new candidate, meaning the country will in effect be left without an acting administration.

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