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Bosnia's Parliament rejects centralization

April 26, 2006 7:30 PM

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina-Bosnian lawmakers on Wednesday rejected proposed constitutional changes aimed at erasing some of the ethnic divisions that resulted from the country's 1992-95 civil war.

The amendments would have replaced Bosnia's three-member presidency with a single president and strengthened the central government, which has held little authority since the accord that ended the war divided the territory into two, largely autonomous ethnic mini-states.

Bosnia's leaders have been under international pressure to return power to a streamlined central government as a way to unify the country and further integrate it into the rest of Europe. The European Union has told the country it has virtually no chance of future membership in the bloc with its current political system.

Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic said the outcome would hurt the country's international position and forecast that any new attempt to push through similar changes to the country's charter would be far off.

"Several years will be necessary in order to launch new talks on constitutional changes and reach a new compromise," Ivanic said.

The proposed changes, which the country's six leading political parties had been negotiating for 10 months, failed to get the necessary backing of two-thirds of Parliament.

Some of those who opposed to the amendments said they did not go far enough in handing power back to central authorities in Sarajevo.

In particular, some felt more should be done to limit lawmakers in the national Parliament from voting along ethnic lines. The proposed changes, however, left unchanged Parliament's current division into voting blocs made up of delegates from the two mini-states.

To end the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II, the Dayton peace accord carved the country into two mini-states, one for the Bosnian Serbs, the other shared by Bosnia's Muslims and Croats. Each has its own local president and legislature.

Under the postwar constitution that emerged from the accord, the two states have been loosely linked by joint institutions at a national level such as the cumbersome three-person presidency whose representatives come from the three major ethnic groups.

The separate states have also had their own police forces, and efforts to unite them under one command have been tough.

Bosnian leaders pledged in talks in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in November, on the 10th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement, to pursue changes to the constitution needed to bring the country's two ethnic republics closer together.

U.S. Ambassador Douglas McElhaney left Wednesday's parliament session after the vote saying, "On behalf of the United States government, I would like to stress my profound disappointment to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Christian Schwarz Schilling, Bosnia's top international administrator, said before the vote that if the changes were rejected, "the rest of the international community will ask themselves why Bosnia-Herzegovina is not willing to move forward."

The war erupted after Bosnian Serbs rebelled against Bosnia's secession from Yugoslavia and began grabbing territory in central Bosnia from Muslims and Croats in the hope of attaching it to a greater Serb Republic. The conflict also drew in troops from Croatia.

Tens of thousands of people were killed and half of the population became refugees.

With the rejection of the changes, it was unclear what would happen to the proposal or if it would be revised and submitted for another vote.

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