Divisions linger as Bosnia marks 20 yrs of independence

AFP , Thursday 1 Mar 2012

Thursday marks 20 years since Bosnia gained independence from Yugoslavia; Observers say anniversary underlines ongoing ethnic divisions

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Muslim women stand in front of a monument with the names of 1,226 victims killed in the summer of 1992 at the beginning of the Bosnian war, during a ceremony to mark the 19th anniversary of the war, in the village of Kozarac, May, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

Bosnia marked 20 years of independence from the former Yugoslavia Thursday with low key ceremonies that exposed the deep ethnic divisions that still haunt the country torn apart by war in the 1990s.

Only the Muslim Croat entity marked the anniversary, as Bosnia's ethnic Serbs do not recognise the date as a national holiday.

"Whether you mark this date or not, whether you like it or not, Bosnia-Hercegovina exists. This county exists and is independent," the Croatian member of Bosnia's three-man presidency, Zeljko Komsic, told AFP.

"We (Muslims, Serbs and Croats) must respect each other... if not we will continue to lose time by repeating the same thing over and over again."

Observers said the anniversary underscored the ethnic divides that still linger in the country after the end of the 1992-95 war that killed some 100,000 people and left 2.2 million internally displaced.

"In Bosnia theren is no agreement about the past, what happened during the war and no compromise on public holidays as there is also no common vision for the future of the country," political analyst Tanja Topic told AFP.

The Muslim member of the presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, said he was sure that the rifts would heal one day.

"People do not want more conflict but a normal life. That is a good base to build a country in which all citizens regardless of their ethnicity feel at ease," Izetbegovic told AFP.

To mark the anniversary, Izetbegovic and Komsic visited symbolic sites linked to the war that erupted after the declaration of independence was rejected by Bosnia's Serbs.

They laid flowers at a cemetery in Sarajevo for those who fought for the city during a 44-month siege by Bosnian Serb troops and at a monument to the 1,500 children who were among the 10,000 people killed.

An evening reception is to be held at the presidency, but no major public celebrations are planned.

Even in Muslim-majority Sarajevo the only signs of the national holiday were closed shops and small Bosnian flags attached to street lights in some of the main streets.

1 March "is a Muslim holiday", said Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik who leads Republika Srpska—which together with the Muslim-Croat Federation makes up present-day Bosnia.

Many Bosnian Croats, unhappy with what they see as an inferior position in the Muslim Croat Federation where Muslims are the majority, no longer celebrate independence.

"I voted for independence in 1992, but if you were to ask me if today we have the Bosnia I imagined then, I would say no," Bosnian Croat political leader Dragan Covic said.

In the referendum on independence in 1992, a full 99 per cent of Muslims and Croats voted to break away from the Yugoslav federation but the vote was boycotted by Bosnian Serbs which at the time made up some 31 per cent of Bosnia's pre-war population of 4.4 million.

One month later, Bosnia was recognised as an independent state by the European Community and the United States, but ethnic Serbs backed by Belgrade fought against the independence and a bloody inter-ethnic war followed.

All former Yugoslav republics are now independent. Slovenia was the first to enter the European Union and Croatia is due to follow next year.

Brussels has insisted the others, including Bosnia, also have a European future but Sarajevo has been struggling to push through EU-sought reforms as ethnic divisions continue to paralyse national politics.

"This stagnation that blocks all progress can go on for a long time and that is the biggest danger for this country," said Topic, who works for the Bosnian branch of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation which promotes democracy.

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