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Electing an Independent Bosnia: The High Representative Must Go

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Bosnia holds elections on Sunday. The results are unlikely to quell the country's sharp ethnic animosities and ensuing political stalemate. "Bosnia Unraveling" has become a common headline. The country's Muslims, Croats, and Serbs, who fought a savage civil war in the 1990s, remain rivals. Bosnian Serbs continue to threaten to break away, while the country's Croats make similar demands for autonomy.

Both the United States and Britain insist that, to keep the country from imploding, it is essential that the Balkan nation remain under the political authority of an internationally appointed "High Representative," who governs the nation's affairs. They are mistaken. By keeping Bosnia a ward of the West, the High Representative has prevented Bosnians from standing on their own feet and building a strong state. It's time they were allowed to do so.

Since 1995, when the famous Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, the High Representative has tried to help Bosnia transition from warring ethnic factions into a single, stable and self-sustaining state. His supreme governing "Bonn Powers" that authorize him to oust obstructive political figures and veto divisive laws have tried to streamline the country's complicated layers of government, including three presidents and three prime ministers. Fifteen years on, there has been little change.

Considering the pervading mistrust at the end of the war giving the High Representative governing powers was a necessary step -- that was never meant to be permanent. The High Representative has outlived its usefulness, which is why the European Commission and some former holders of the office suggest it is time to transfer authority to Bosnian hands. There is good reason to support this.

With final say-so in the hands of the High Representative, Bosnian politicians have no accountability or incentive to govern. The country's elected officials can and do ignore important matters such as a forty percent unemployment rate, a crumbling infrastructure and a crippled education system that has thirteen ministries but produces few qualified graduates.

Instead, politicians indulge endlessly in nationalist rhetoric. As Bosnians have witnessed during this bitter campaign, every issue is viewed through an ethnic prism. This has forced the High Representative to play referee rather than act as an agent for a strong Bosnian state. That has eroded his effectiveness, keeping Bosnia divided and stagnant.

Effectiveness is something Bosnians long to see. According to a poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute last year, Bosnians want to see an improved economy. Currently, it is an economy buoyed by aid, foreign aid workers and foreign missions. As a result, it has little to export and few jobs for its 4.6 million residents. The country's best and brightest have left for Western capitals. Most of those left behind operate one of Europe's biggest black markets in which crime and tax avoidance are rampant.

The European Union has motivated Bosnian politicians to change this. Eager to reap the benefits of EU membership, Bosnia's three ethnic groups have surprisingly worked together, if not always smoothly, to comply with the criteria Brussels requires. This has resulted in encouraging citizens to become part of the formal economy as entrepreneurs and creating conditions for foreign investments. Still, more needs to be done.

Bosnia's constitution needs to be reformed. That will require serious effort and encouragement, as the ultimatums Washington has previously rendered, most recently in April, have failed. Full EU membership is an incentive powerful enough to get Bosnians there. The Europeans, for their part, must be clear about the required directions on that path. They have not always been. They must also be firm that the High Representative will have no role in arranging EU membership for Bosnia. Bosnians must do that hard work.

The majority of EU member states have called for the end of the High Representative's "Bonn Powers." Washington and London are resistant. They are stuck in a 1990s mentality that believes that the elimination of these powers will lead to a renewed Balkan war. Though there has been an increase in ethnic tensions and incidents in Bosnia, war, by all accounts, is highly unlikely.

Bosnian Serbs no longer have an enthusiastic patron in Serbia, who through Slobodon Milosevic's maniacal machinations engineered the 1992-1995 upheaval, and which today is focused on European integration. Similarly Croatia, which has actually signed an agreement with Brussels and become a NATO member, has said that it will not support a separatist movement in Bosnia.

International peacekeepers in the Balkan nation have fallen from an original 60,000 to the current 2,000. Military experts have said that that number can be further reduced to 200.

Bloodshed is not something Bosnians want. Neither is the continued Balkanization of its political process. If the High Representative was meant to deliver progress to Bosnia, it is high time he is allowed to step aside and let Bosnia become truly independent.

Elmira Bayrasli was the Chief Spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Mission to BiH from 2003-2005. She writes and works on global development issues.