It's being called the worst political crisis since the end of the 1992-95 war. Bosnia's central government has until Saturday to decide whether to back reforms strengthening federal powers or have them imposed by an international overseer.
At stake is the country's fragile nationhood. Since the Dayton agreement that ended the war in 1995, Bosnia has been ethnically divided into two ministates – the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic – that are overseen by three presidents and held together by a central government and parliament.
Reforms proposed by the international overseer, Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak, would help create a more stable central government – a requisite for European Union (EU) membership but a move Bosnian Serbs oppose, fearing marginalization by other ethnic groups, especially Bosnian Muslims who support greater unification.
Bosnia's prime minister, Nikola Spiric, has already resigned over the reform proposals, and other Bosnian Serb politicians are threatening to do the same.
Growing political crisis
Mr. Lajcak, Bosnia's sixth so-called high representative, proposes to tweak the math on how a quorum in parliament is calculated, so that lawmakers can no longer block government decisions by absenting themselves from the sessions.
"The decision was taken to make the state more efficient," says Lajcak's spokesman Eldar Subasic.
Mr. Subasic says that Lajcak's office sees two ways to push these reforms through – either through the lure of eventual EU membership, which has so far proved unenticing, or by imposing the changes on the divided country.
Lajcak, who has the power to impose laws and sack officials, has warned that the current situation could spiral out of control.
"Each of the political leaderships ... clearly wants to impose its own vision of the country. The legacy of war and the logic of nationally based and zero-sum politics make any significant compromise profoundly difficult if not entirely impossible," Lajcak told a committee of EU lawmakers Tuesday.
The crisis shows that 12 years after the US-brokered peace agreement ended the war, and billions of dollars in aid later, Bosnia's Croats, Muslims, and Serbs still cannot agree on how their country should look.
The EU has been dangling the carrot of membership over Bosnia for the past five years – Bosnia is the only country in the region that has no contractual agreement with the EU – but most reforms have come from international community arm-twisting.
If Bosnia falls apart, it will reflect poorly on the international community as a whole, not just the EU.
A country still divided
Following Spiric's resignation earlier this month, Bosnia's parliamentary parties have until mid-December to choose another candidate or call new elections.
This could further stall reforms. It could also mean that Bosnia is without a central government during the region's biggest event in December – Kosovo's possible independence from Serbia.
Spiric's resignation came after the international community threw its support behind Lajcak, rather than local politicians. "If the international community always supports the high representative and not the institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), then it doesn't matter if I am the head of that state, or Bart Simpson," Spiric said at the time.
More than 8,000 Serbs demonstrated in the de facto state capital of Banja Luka last month, protesting the whittling away of the power of their ministate – from the judiciary to the military and most recently, the police.
"The essential reason why we are annoyed by this is because this decision allows for Serb representatives to be outvoted in BiH institutions in a few scenarios," says Gordan Milosevic, an adviser to the Serb Republic's prime minister, Milorad Dodik. "I don't want to say that was the only reasons that the country fell apart [during the war], but it was one of the main reason that [former Yugoslav president Slobodan, no relation to Gordan] Milosevic used to incite fear among Serbs – saying, 'Look guys, you can say whatever you want, but you will be outvoted.'"
Improved security is cause for hope
However, observers note two bright spots in the current crisis. At the end of October, Bosnia's main political parties agreed that they would talk further on reforming Bosnia's ethnically based police, which would also help it move closer to the EU. The parties have also agreed that there should be reforms of the country's convoluted Constitution.
While the political crisis is being called the worst since the Bosnian war ended over a decade ago, memories may be short: In 2001, the Bosnian Croats tried to organize their own government in areas where they were the majority, and Croat soldiers deserted the Federation military barracks en masse in support.
Nothing of that sort is happening now, notes a spokesman of the EU peacekeeping troops here, which number 2,500 from 30 countries.
"We don't see any change at all in the security of the country," says Maj. David Fielder of Britain's Royal Marines. "The politics may be busy, but that's for politicians ... the fact that 8,000 people were able to march peacefully and then go home without any problems is a good indication of the safe and secure environment."
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.