In the cobbled streets of old Sarajevo, leather goods are a popular buy. Alongside elaborately tooled belts, shoulder bags, and fanny packs on display at bargain prices invariably lie less innocent items, such as gun holsters and ammunition belts.
Nothing could better illustrate the uncertainty clouding Bosnia-Herzegovina's future, despite $5.1 billion in Western aid, less than a year from the end of the timetable for peace set by the US-brokered Dayton accord in December 1995.
That deal, halting the worst fighting Europe has seen since World War II, "ended the violence but it never stopped the war," says Jacques Klein, head of the United Nations mission here. And as the international community shifts its attention, and its money, to other global trouble spots, Bosnia is in danger of slipping back into chaos.
Most of the goals Dayton set remain unfulfilled, officials acknowledge, and some of the most important ones may never be reached. The absence of war is the only clear success that the peace treaty has so far bequeathed.
As international peacekeeping troops struggle to maintain order in Kosovo, and as United Nations forces prepare to monitor the shaky cease-fire in Congo (the former Zaire), one lesson from Bosnia stands out: Stopping the fighting is only the first - and sometimes the simplest - of the many jobs that need doing to heal shattered societies.
Tens of thousands of NATO-led foreign troops in a Stabilization Force (SFOR) have ensured security in Bosnia, but "it's on the civilian side, like building state institutions, where we are falling behind," says Mr. Klein, a former US diplomat.
Beyond stopping the fighting between Bosnia's Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, the Dayton agreement was designed to reverse the ethnic cleansing that had forced minorities to flee their homes under threat of death, and to lay the foundations for a new, unified country.
But few refugees are returning to places where they would be in the minority again. Of the 1.5 million Bosnians who left their homes during the war, some 600,000 are back. But after four years, hostile local authorities have managed to ensure that there have been only 120,000 minority returns, and Bosnia remains divided into three essentially monoethnic regions: the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, a Bosnian Muslim area, and a heavily Croat zone.
Refugee officials are hopeful that returns will pick up this year, but they say that the moment of truth is at hand: Anyone who has not gone home in two years' time will probably never do so. In the end, admits one senior official privately, "we cannot undo ethnic cleansing."
Nor is the country in any way unified. It is divided between the two entities created by Dayton - the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation - each of which has its own army, police force, energy and telecommunications systems, and laws. And the Federation itself is divided between Muslims and Croats, who rarely cooperate on anything.
Frustrated in their desire to secede and join their mother countries, the hard-line Serbs and Croats who hold power in their regions "say 'no' to anything that looks like Bosnia," complains Haris Silajdzic, a leading Muslim politician and former deputy prime minister.
"The architectural blueprint" for a unified state "is not clear, and many of the carpenters are doing their best to ensure that the house is not built," says Klein.
Croatia a sign of hope
Conflict among ethnic politicians has paralyzed state institutions such as the parliament, the Cabinet, and the constitutional court for months at a time. Still, Wolfgang Petritsch, the Austrian diplomat in charge of overseeing the peace process, sees grounds for hope. "I think pragmatism will seep into the system," says Mr. Petritsch, the international community's High Representative in Bosnia. "But the pace is a problem, and we have to push."
Like many Bosnian and foreign officials, he is also pinning his hopes on the recent change of government in neighboring Croatia. The new, pro-Western authorities in Zagreb have said they will no longer encourage the secessionist dreams of Bosnian Croats the way the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman did.
But there seems to be less room for hope on the economic front, where old communist habits are proving hard to break, and where senior ruling party officials, criminal gangs, and state enterprises are tangled in Gordian knots of corruption.
In the Muslim-Croat Federation, only 1.4 percent of state-owned property has been privatized and Washington has cancelled its privatization aid to the Federation government in frustration. Unemployment is running at around 40 percent in the Federation and 50 percent in Republika Srpska, and there are no signs of economic rejuvenation. The rest of the world is losing patience, however, and foreign aid - which has been propping up the economy - is likely to be cut by half this year.
"The clock is ticking and the money's running out," warns Tanya Domi, an official with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
That has sparked a greater level of activism among the myriad international organizations trying to build Bosnia into a functioning state. "A lot of people in the international community here are saying to themselves 'this could be our last year, let's see what we can do,' " suggests James Lyon, head of the local office of the International Crisis Group, a think tank based in Brussels.
"You have to get in to get out" is currently one of the fashionable slogans in Bosnia, and certainly Petritsch, named to his post last August, has made his presence felt. In November, he dismissed 22 elected officials, deeming them obstructionist, and Petritsch says he is ready to start firing executives who block economic reform. "A business manager can prevent privatization, and when absolutely necessary it will be a political act to dismiss such a person," he says.
Imposing such changes would follow a pattern: All the major achievements under Dayton, such as the central bank, common currency, border police service, and common license plates were imposed by the Office of the High Representative when parliament proved unable to agree on them. Ruling by ukase, though, is an admission of failure, says Petritsch. "They want me to do their job for them," he says of Bosnian politicians and voters. "They don't believe in themselves ... but they have to identify with this state and take ownership."
He adds, "If people's minds don't move along with reconstruction, you cannot enliven this place." Encouraging such movement, when hard-line parties feeding on nationalist emotion are in power all over Bosnia, is hard. "People vote their fears before they vote their hopes," points out Mr. Lyon.
But Petritsch suspects that might be changing. "People are more and more interested in bread-and-butter issues and disillusioned with nationalist politicians promising them paradise but giving them nothing of what they need on earth," he says.
"I am quite hopeful that over time voting patterns will normalize," he adds. "But don't expect quick changes."
And there's the rub, for international attention on Bosnia is fading: Aid agencies are pulling staff out, budgets are being cut, and many observers fear that the world will stop caring before Bosnia's future is secure.
"I am worried about political support," Petritsch says. "It's very important not to say that we stop on Dec. 31 and leave."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society