(AP) - Bosnia's Parliament adopted Thursday a long-disputed police reform, allowing the country to take its next step toward membership in the European Union.
Laws allowing the creation of a more effective police force are a key condition for Bosnia to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union. The Parliament's move Thursday enabled a signing of the Agreement end of April. If properly implemented the Agreement is the gateway to candidate status.
Lawmakers of the Lower House of the Parliament dismissed Thursday all previous proposals that derived from a four-year discussion about to what extent to integrate the two existing, ethnically divided, police forces.
They called for an emergency session Thursday evening and adopted a new proposal developed with the help of Bosnia's international administrator, Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak.
Out of the 42 lawmakers, 22 voted for the compromise, 19 were against and one abstained.
The reform still must be confirmed by the Upper House, which is usually a formality.
The compromise does not foresee the merger of the two existing police forces but establishes seven bodies that will coordinate police work and integrate some areas, like education or forensics.
The reform vague, leaving the authority of those central bodies over local police forces to be defined one year after a constitutional reform is adopted. When this will happen is hard to foresee. Delays in implementing reforms the country often result from its complex setup.
The peace agreement that ended three and a half years of war in 1995 divided the country into a Serb Republic and a Bosniak-Croat Federation, each with its own police force. Although cooperation between the two forces has improved over the years, it still depends on the good will of police officers and is not obligatory.
Since then most of the ethnically divided government institutions have been merged, in addition to the army, in which Christian Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Roman Catholic Croats now serve together.
Police was the last major institution divided along ethnic lines, and for years Serbs refused to agree to a merger of the two forces, fearing it might lead to the loss of their separate territory within Bosnia. Bosniaks, on the other hand, demanded a complete merger.
The EU said a way must be found for the police to be more effective, not under influence of politicians, and financed from a joint budget. As long as those conditions are not met, Bosnia's progress toward the EU remains frozen.
Some Bosniak lawmakers argued the compromise offers only "cosmetic" changes to the existing structure and was designed to satisfy the EU but not improve security in Bosnia.
Some Bosnian Serb lawmakers argued that cooperation of the two police forces is fairly good and a merger is not necessary at all.
However, for the sake of moving closer to European Union membership, lawmakers adopted the police reform despite their numerous objections.
Croatia is the only western Balkan nation trying to join the EU that may be ready before the end of the decade, according to a recent EU report. The others will need at least five years to prepare themselves economically and politically.