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The multi-ethnic state of Bosnia is once again in crisis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As the standoff over Ukraine continues, tensions are rising around another old conflict in Europe. Brutal ethnic fighting left at least 100,000 dead in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. The U.S. brokered peace there, but the fragile, multi-ethnic state is once again in crisis. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Sarajevo.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When Samantha Power graduated from college back in 1992, the Bosnian War was nightly news in America.

SAMANTHA POWER: It just seemed unbelievably terrible that people were just being rounded up or expelled from their homes or targeted with gunfire because of their ethnicity, their religion.

LANGFITT: Power is now head of the U.S. Agency for International Development. And this morning she's sharing her story with a women's volleyball club in a school gym. After college, Power came here and reported for news organizations such as The Washington Post and NPR.

POWER: We were writing about these camps, and we were writing about parents not being able to feed their kids. And I think we all had hope that if we wrote a lot, a lot, a lot that someone would do something.

LANGFITT: It took years and NATO airstrikes, but in 1995, the U.S. brought the various sides together to sign a peace deal in Dayton, Ohio. An international tribunal in The Hague eventually convicted Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic of genocide and crimes against humanity. And there was hope, which has been fading.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LANGFITT: After Power played a few points, team members shared how disappointed they are with their leaders. Almudena Deric (ph) is a 24-year-old chemistry student.

ALMUDENA DERIC: Politics in our country is so hard that we don't want to even read or watch anything about politics. We only see the problems in our country.

LANGFITT: Almost everyone I spoke to recently summed up the problems like this. Political leaders play up old ethnic tensions to distract from their corruption and mismanagement of government. Adnan Huskic teaches politics at Sarajevo University of Science and Technology.

ADNAN HUSKIC: Yes, they're thieves. There is no doubt about that, right? But, I mean, the reason why they steal money so openly is because they know that they enjoy impunity, that the system cannot reach them because they control the system.

LANGFITT: The system has three presidents, Serb, Croat and Bosniak - or Bosnian Muslim. It's an unwieldy government structure put in place after the war to try to balance competing ethnic interests, the system that people here say has not delivered.

IVAN VALETTA: Hopeless. I mean, in 25 years, nothing has basically changed.

LANGFITT: That's Ivan Valetta (ph). He's studying electrical engineering and plans to move to Germany. A U.N. survey in November found nearly half of young people are thinking about leaving Bosnia.

VALETTA: When you have a diabolical political system that has three useless presidents, what can you expect?

LANGFITT: Valetta singles out President Milorad Dodik, an ethnic Serb.

VALETTA: Basically, he uses nationalism to control the masses.

LANGFITT: After chatting with the volleyball team, Power spoke somberly of Bosnia's trajectory.

POWER: The dream was the war would end and people would get reacquainted and remember all they had in common. And unfortunately, there has been a lot more polarization than the peacemakers had hoped.

LANGFITT: Among other things, U.S. aid supports war camp survivors from the three main ethnic groups who share their stories of mutual suffering in hopes of preventing a return to violence. Power said the agency has invested more than $2 billion to help Bosnia recover.

POWER: Many of the buildings that you see, including this school that we are sitting in right now, were restored thanks to the generosity of the American taxpayer.

LANGFITT: The U.S. is also applying pressure. In January, the Treasury Department hit Dodik with fresh sanctions for corruption and threatening Bosnia's stability. Power also called him out at a press conference here.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

POWER: President Dodik, in particular, has created a climate of tension, one that is vulnerable to miscalculation and the risk of escalation.

LANGFITT: Dodik says Republika Srpska, the Serb-ruled entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina, doesn't have the autonomy it should. He's threatened to create a breakaway Serb army and has threatened secession for years. He calls the U.S. sanctions against him a farce and at a gathering of fellow Serb politicians, mocked America with a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) America, America, (singing in Serbian).

LANGFITT: It goes America, America, oh, you vast country. An inch of my village is worth all of America. At a recent news conference, Dodik said the U.S. had no business telling his country what to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

MILORAD DODIK: (Through interpreter) Who invited and who gave the right to America to interfere in these issues here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is becoming a serious issue of interference in domestic affairs.

LANGFITT: People here worry about a sudden outbreak of violence. Damir Arnaut is a member of the House of Representatives with our country (ph), a liberal, multi-ethnic party.

DAMIR ARNAUT: What Mr. Dodik is doing right now can be described as playing with fire. What I'm afraid the most of is of isolated incidents - people perhaps being drunk and being emotional about the increased nationalist rhetoric throwing their all, God forbid, using a gun on somebody, and then things slowly spiraling out of control.

LANGFITT: In a nation where so many were slaughtered just several decades ago, even individual acts of violence can instill fear.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Sarajevo. 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.