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Ethnic tensions are mounting in Bosnia-Herzegovina again

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than a quarter century ago, the U.S. brokered a peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina to end a war that cost about a hundred thousand lives. I covered the siege of Sarajevo. Many of those of us who covered that war will never forget the bitter divisions, brutality and bravery and sacrifice we saw. Now that peace is under threat, and U.S. officials are there to try to help stabilize a country in crisis.

NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Sarajevo.

Frank, thanks for being with us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Help us understand what's driving this crisis now.

LANGFITT: Yeah, so Bosnia remains divided between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. The country has three presidents. One is a guy named Milorad Dodik. He's a Serb. And the Republika Srpska - it's one of two separate government entities. It's majority Serb. And Dodik - he wants the Republika Srpska to have control of troops, oversight of courts. And, again, he's actually threatening to secede from the entire country. And there's a fear here of Bosnia pulling apart and a risk of a return to violence.

SIMON: Yeah. Frank, the U.S. invested a tremendous amount of political energy and other kinds of investment into Bosnia, hoping to help build a multi-ethnic, diverse democracy. How is the U.S. government responding?

LANGFITT: Well, the Treasury Department has hit Dodik with these economic sanctions, citing corruption. He denies it. But it seems to be an article of faith here - and because of his inflammatory rhetoric. And the U.S. has been sending a steady stream of officials here to apply pressure. The one who's been here most recently is Samantha Power. She's the head of the USAID, which has provided over $2 billion in aid here since the '90s. She met with Dodik yesterday. She emphasized the risks she felt he's creating. He remained defiant. And she says the U.S. is considering even more sanctions.

This is what she said when we sat down to talk to her.

SAMANTHA POWER: Secessionist threats from President Dodik are extremely unhelpful. They scare people. They make people hearken back to a period that they really had hoped they had left behind.

SIMON: Is it a continuation of some of the ethnic rivalry that generated the war, or is there something else involved?

LANGFITT: Yeah - yes and no. You know, when you talk to people here, they take a much more cynical view, and they discount that it's really driven by genuine ethnic conflict. They see politicians really exploiting identity politics, try to win elections and basically taking a very cynical approach.

I spoke with a professor. His name is Adnan Huskic. And he teaches politics at Sarajevo School of Science and Technology.

ADNAN HUSKIC: This crisis are simply the way the local - corrupt local political elites are, in a way, diverting attention away from grave socioeconomic situation we're in and the general misgovernance of this country.

SIMON: And, Frank, I know you've been talking to Bosnias, Sarajevans. What do they say?

LANGFITT: They hate this crisis right now. And it has led many, many young people - hundreds of thousands - to leave the country in recent years. I mean, it's an astonishing brain drain because they're just giving up because of the corruption, because the lack of opportunity. Yesterday, I met up with Samantha Power when she was talking to a bunch of women who play on a club volleyball team. They're all about 18 years old. Most of them want to go play abroad and stay there if they can.

And there was one woman that I talked to. Her name is Amina Mahmutovic (ph).

Here's what she had to say.

AMINA MAHMUTOVIC: No in Bosnia - I would like to live anywhere else - like, in Europe.

LANGFITT: And when you talk to people, they really do say they'd like to - some of them, as much as they love this country, it's become so difficult. They're very happy to try to look somewhere, maybe anywhere else.

SIMON: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Sarajevo - thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.