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Global Economy

Is there a new outbreak of violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

A few weeks after returning from Ukraine, when most foreign media outlets had scaled back their presence in the war-torn country, I was asked to investigate the international community's speculation about the potential impact of the conflict.

Fears that ethnic tensions could spread from Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Western Balkans had increased significantly. These fears have been fueled by repeated calls from the political leadership of the country's Serbian entity to secede from state institutions.

Landing in Sarajevo, the country's capital, I warmed to the thought of reconnecting with communities that had experienced many changes and challenges over the years since the end of the three-year war in 1995. I knew that the rules that came into force after the Dayton Agreement were not always easy for the Bosniak, Croat and Serb parts of the population to accept and that the problems were far from being solved.

But I wanted to know firsthand if the tensions were really as serious as the media and local political leaders were suggesting, and to what extent people were willing to endure a new cycle of violence after all they had experienced during the bloodiest conflict experienced on European soil since the Second World War.

"It helps politicians stay in office and abuse the state while people are just trying to survive and make ends meet," Ervin, who has campaigned for reconciliation for years, told me. He is a Bosniak resident and returnee in the small town of Kozarac in the Republic of Srpska, the Serb-run entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In his opinion, the main problem in the region is unemployment, which is driving many young people out of the country. He adds that ethnic reasons also play a role, with few Bosniaks finding work in public companies and services under the Serbian administration of the nearby city of Prijedor, on which Kozarac depends.

A former prisoner in one of the region's sadly notorious war camps, he sighs as he leads me back to the gloomy barracks. "There is no sign here indicating that this was a prison camp, and the Prijedor authorities refuse to recognize the crimes committed here against Muslim Bosniaks and Croats," he says.

An issue of contention between communities that has been taken up by ultranationalist groups. Nikola Dabić is a 28-year-old Serbian artist and co-founder of such a group called "Self-Esteem". He laments the Western world's denial of the crimes committed by Croatian Ustasha extremists against the Serbs during World War II and blames "Croatian Muslims" for the war starting in the 1990s. "Peace will come when the other side finally admits that they're wrong. That they were wrong too. We can't be the only bad guys, we're not the only bad guys," he shouts, doubting that I'm his words would convey.

Resentment about waiting for EU accession

These feelings are no doubt reinforced by growing resentment that Bosnia-Herzegovina's candidacy for the European Union has still not been accepted, while it took only a few months for the EU to grant candidate status to Ukraine.

''Not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, but all Western Balkan countries have been abandoned by the European Union," says the deputy mayor of Prijedor, adding: "We never had the chance to manage our relations ourselves without that Solutions were forced on us from outside."

A direct reference to the authority of the international community's High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Under the Dayton Accords, he has the power to legislate, amend institutions or fire local politicians, both in the central government and in the country's two entities: the Bosnian-Croat majority Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb-majority Republic of Srpska.

"If sensible action is taken in this country and all political bodies assume their responsibilities, there will be no more interference," replied High Representative Christian Schmidt, to whom I later forwarded the comment. "My message is: Dear colleagues, do your job. Work for your country and for European integration, and everything will be fine. As long as you don't do that, you have to count on me!"

Corruption and dysfunctional justice system

Plagued by political corruption and a dysfunctional judicial system, the country is far from meeting the conditions set by the European Union for the start of the integration process.

Another source of discontent that the Serbian political leader is exploiting to justify his secession demands.

These will no doubt be put to the test in the national elections scheduled for next October.

I end my journey in Srebrenica, where Jovana, a 34-year-old Serbian, has lived since she was a child. She has been trying for years to find the remains of her father, who was killed during the war and is missing along with many other civilians.

However, her main concern is to ensure a peaceful future for her four children. When asked if she shares concerns about a possible resurgence of ethnic violence in the country and if she would like to see the Republic of Srpska withdraw from state institutions, she brushes both questions aside:

''There are things that men will never make peace with as long as they live. But on the whole the communities live together quite normally. I personally believe that the root of the problem is politics. And the ones who take the collateral damage are the people. I don't care if I live in Bosnia-Herzegovina or in the Republic of Srpska. Either way, I don't think it would change anything."

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