Bosnian leader calls for end to ethnic divisions

Chairman of the presidency visits campus between two other stops in St. Louis, Chicago

CHAMPAIGN — Dividing citizens, and government, along ethnic lines is not sustainable for Bosnia, the republic's current president said Tuesday.

Zeljko Komsic, the current chairman of the three-person presidency of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said the ethnic divisions entrenched in his country's constitution threaten its future and potential membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"There is no way forward for Bosnia Herzegovina without NATO and the EU," Komsic said through a translator during an appearance at the University of Illinois.

Komsic visited campus as part of a program on the Bosnian "diaspora," or the more than 1 million Bosnians who fled a three-year war, discrimination and a poor economy to live in the United States and other countries. The UI is developing a program in Bosnian studies, pulling together scholars in history, music and other fields who study the Balkans.

Komsic, who holds a degree from Georgetown University, is the Croat member of the three-person presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which rotates every eight months and also includes a Serb and a Bosniak (Muslim). He was first elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2010.

Part of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in March 1992 after a referendum that was boycotted by ethnic Serbs.

Bosnian Serbs, supported by neighboring Serbia and Montenegro, fought to partition the republic along ethnic lines and join Serb-held areas to form a "Greater Serbia." That plunged the republic, which includes Muslims, Croats and Serbs, into a three-year civil war.

The factions agreed to U.S.-brokered peace accords in November 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, which created a multi-ethnic democratic government that gave each of the three main ethnic groups a share of power based on the size of their populations. It included a second tier of government composed of the Bosniak/Bosnian Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska, which oversee most government functions.

Komsic expressed gratitude to the United States and other NATO countries for helping end the Bosnian War. But he said the Dayton Accords didn't resolve the longstanding ethnic tensions in his country, and substantial changes are needed to meet basic human-rights standards.

Under the constitution, not all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina can be elected, he said, and a human-rights court has ordered changes.

"This is a type of discrimination," he said.

The country can't survive divided among Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, Komsic said, as it has "stalled" Bosnia's progress and desire to join the EU.

On the day a congressional standoff brought parts of the U.S. government to a halt, Komsic nonetheless praised U.S.-style democracy as something his country should emulate. The U.S. Constitution guarantees individual rights, including the right to vote and be elected, he said, and Bosnia needs to establish a society where people are judged as individuals, not by their ethnicity.

As an example, he pointed to the election of Barack Obama as the first U.S. black president despite the country's struggles with racial discrimination. It was the "strength of society" and the protections of the Constitution that allowed that historic moment, he said.

"We're still struggling to get that. We want that moment in Bosnia Herzegovina," so society will no longer be divided by ethnicity or race or "what God people believe in," he said. "We need to overcome this so we can move on."

Despite decades of ethnic conflict, Komsic thinks his country can change, and that almost half of Bosnia's citizens agree with him.

Bosnia began a new census Tuesday, and thousands of citizens have joined a campaign to reject the ethnic and religious labels that still divide the country, using "ethnically challenged" or "a citizen above all" instead. The government power-sharing arrangement among Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks left out Jews or the children of mixed marriages who refused to pick a side and are excluded from public-sector job quotas.

Komsic called the protest a positive step.

"The biggest question is, who we are. Are we Bosniak, Serb or Croatian, or are we ordinary people? I believe that we are primarily ordinary people," he said after his talk Wednesday.

Komsic, 49, earned degrees from the University in Sarajevo law school and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He received the Bosnian army's highest honor, the Golden Lily, for his service in the war. He traveled to the United States last week for the U.N. General Assembly and agreed to visit Champaign in between stops in St. Louis and Chicago, which both have large Bosnian-American populations.

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