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EU ready to help Bosnia speed up reforms after protests - Ashton

Source: Reuters - Wed, 12 Mar 2014 18:56 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Bosnia saw worst civil unrest since 1992-95 war

* Ashton urges leaders to look beyond ethnic divisions

* EU will not lower the bar for entry, Ashton warns

SARAJEVO, March 12 (Reuters) - The European Union is ready to expand its engagement in Bosnia to help it speed up the economic and social reforms demanded during mass protests last month, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said on Wednesday.

The Balkan country saw the worst bout of civil unrest since its 1992-95 war, as protests over unemployment, corruption and political inertia toppled four of 10 regional governments in one of Bosnia's two autonomous regions.

At the same time, drawn-out talks with the EU on a constitutional reform that would remove discrimination against minorities and let Bosnia apply for the membership of the bloc, collapsed amid political wrangling.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule has said the talks will not continue, and announced a new EU approach to Bosnia that would tackle economic and social rather than political challenges.

Ashton, talking to political leaders and activists, said the EU would help Bosnian leaders address protesters' demands to curb corruption and boost the economy, without going into detail on what form that assistance might take.

"We are ready to consider broader engagement with you to help address these issues," Ashton told a news conference. "This is not about lowering the bar, it's about helping you get over it," she said.

"So to fulfil these justified expectations, the leaders need to look beyond ethnic divisions, and look after the interests of all the people," Ashton said. "I call on political leaders to listen, to take responsibility and act. And to do this now."

Bosnia, divided along ethnic lines after the war, has seen reforms and progress towards the European Union blocked by bickering between rival groups.

Bosnia's Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks have opposing visions of their joint state. While Bosniaks aspire to a more centralised state, the Croats want their own entity like the Serbs, who say they have little need for Bosnia at all.

(Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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