BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — The leader of Bosnia's Serb republic said Wednesday his people are victims of a dysfunctional country and would be much better off on their own, but the EU insists on them staying part of Bosnia.
Milorad Dodik told The Associated Press in an interview that this is why Bosnian Serbs insist on strong autonomy within Bosnia, and if they can't keep that, then the country should forget about its EU aspirations.
Balkan countries are trying to move toward EU membership as fast as they can, but Bosnia is lagging behind because its three ethnic groups keep arguing over the country's future political setup.
"We can be part of that train toward Europe, but we will not sacrifice our rights, not even for Europe," Dodik said. "The only way we can continue historically to exist is to enter the European Union as a republic with its own rights."
Since the end of the 1992-95 war, Bosnia has been divided into two autonomous regions — one for the Serbs, the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats. The two regions are only loosely tied to the central government, parliament and the presidency.
The EU has insisted on a stronger central government. The 27-nation bloc's position suits the Bosniaks, who want a unified country, but it scares off Serbs, who believe a stronger central government means them losing some of their autonomy.
Dodik said he believes the Bosnian Serb region "alone could meet EU standards within five years, but within Bosnia we won't do that within 30 years. We are the victims of Bosnia-Herzegovina," he said.
However, reaching the EU as a region is not possible because Brussels insists on "one country, one address," he said.
Bosnian Serbs have been trying to explain this to EU diplomats for years, but the bad image from the war is hindering them, he said.
"As soon as you say Bosnia, the old stereotype of the 'bad guys' pops up, and Dodik turns out to be the bad guy," he said.
The war's main spark was the Bosnian Serb drive to split from Bosnia and join up with Serbia as Bosnia seceded from Yugoslavia. More than 100,000 people, mostly Bosniaks, died in the war, while most of the war crimes were committed by Serbs.
"That's a big burden for us," Dodik said.
He said the Bosniaks' uncompromising stance on a unified country prevents Bosnia from moving faster toward the EU.
"The Bosniaks have tried everything to turn this into a story about a victim that has all the rights," Dodik said. "But the Bosniaks were not the only victims."
Irena Knezevic contributed to this report.