Another Balkan Sleepwalk

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Almost exactly 13 years ago, U.S. leadership brought an end to Bosnia's 3 1/2-year war through the Dayton Peace Agreement. Today that country is now in real danger of collapse. As in 1995, resolve and trans-Atlantic unity are needed if we are not to sleepwalk into another crisis.

Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, once the darling of the international community -- and especially the United States -- for his opposition to the nationalist Serb Democratic Party, has adopted that party's agenda without being tainted by their genocidal baggage. His long-term policy seems clear: to place his Serb entity, Republika Srpska, in a position to secede if the opportunity arises. Exploiting the weaknesses in Bosnia's constitutional structure, the international community's weariness and the European Union's inability to stick by its conditionality, in two years he has reversed much of the real progress in Bosnia made over the past 13, crucially weakened the institutions of the Bosnian state and all but stopped the country's evolution into a functioning, EU-compatible state.

Dodik's actions have been fueled by Russian encouragement and petrodollars. In addition, his rival Haris Silajdzic, the senior president of all of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has stressed the need to abolish the two entities that make up Bosnia in order to create one non-federal country. Dodik claims that he respects the Dayton agreement, and Silajdzic wishes to revise it, but both men are violating its basic principle: a federal system within a single state. This toxic interaction is at the heart of today's Bosnian crisis.

As a result, the suspicion and fear that began the war in 1992 have been reinvigorated. A destructive dynamic is accelerating, and Bosnian and Croat nationalism is on the rise. Recent local elections gave a fillip to nationalist parties.

This tipping point is the result of a distracted international community. While the Bush administration largely turned its back on Bosnia, the EU became deeply engaged. EU membership has been the critical lever for pressing reforms in Bosnia since it was made policy in 2003. But the EU did not develop a coherent strategy, and by proclaiming progress where it has not been achieved, the EU weakened not only its own influence in the country but also the Office of the High Representative and the international military presence called EUFOR, which succeeded NATO.

The degeneration of the OHR's influence coincided with the withdrawal of the U.S. military and the hollowing out of EUFOR, which now has little in the way of operational capacity. Despite the danger signals, France and Spain apparently want to pull the plug on EUFOR altogether before the end of the year, seemingly to prove the purely technical point that EU missions can end.

Like Dodik, Russia is exploiting weak EU resolve and making trouble for the United States and EU where possible. Yet the Kremlin's stake in Bosnia pales in comparison to those of Brussels or Washington. Russia's attempts to close the high representative's office, regardless of whether the job is done, must be rebuffed. It has to remain open -- or a similarly strong organization set up -- until the conditions for the transition to a more normal EU presence are met. The United States -- with or without a lame duck president -- must re-engage.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, should initiate an independent study with the task of producing a new trans-Atlantic policy, backed by the United States' full engagement and strong EU conditionality, which can lead to deeper and broader international involvement in Bosnia. A collapse of the Dayton Peace Agreement would be an unnecessary and unwanted additional problem for the next U.S. president.

The EU's foreign policy attention has recently focused on Kosovo, but it is Bosnia that has always been the bigger and more dangerous challenge. That country's decline can still be arrested if the EU wakes up, the new U.S. administration gets engaged and both renew their commitment to Bosnia's survival as a state. This can be accomplished by maintaining an effective troop presence and beginning the process of strengthening the international community's long-term approach, including finding ways to untie Bosnia's constitutional knot.

It's time to pay attention to Bosnia again if we don't want things to get nasty very quickly. By now, the entire world knows the price of that.

Richard Holbrooke was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. Paddy Ashdown was the international community's high representative and EU special representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006. © Project Syndicate