By Marc Jones
LONDON (Reuters) - Bosnia's application to join the European Union may not come this month as planned, its foreign minister said on Tuesday, but stressed any slippage would be minor and result from efforts to ensure the bid is successful.
Still struggling to overcome ethnic divisions that linger 20 years after the end of a war in which around 100,000 people died, the former Yugoslav republic is lagging far behind its Balkan neighbors on the road to joining the EU.
Bosnia signed a pre-membership pact on closer ties known as a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in 2008, but it was ratified only in June when Germany and Britain launched a new initiative to encourage economic development. That followed after years of delayed reforms.
Last month its three-man presidency said it hoped to submit the bid in January, but foreign minister Igor Crnadak told Reuters in an interview the deadline could be pushed back, although not significantly.
"We are focused on having a credible application rather than rush it," Crnadak said. "Our presidency has said we will make the application by the end of January. We are doing our best to meet this, but even if we miss it, it will not be by very much."
If its application is accepted, years of tough negotiations lie ahead. Many observers believe Bosnia, politically decentralized along ethnic lines and economically impoverished, is unlikely to join before 2025.
Crnadak said it was too early to speculate how long the joining process could take, but that he hoped the application would get a green light from the EU within a year.
Bosnia is comprised of two autonomous regions, the Serb Republic and the Bosniak-Croat Federation, linked via a weak central cabinet. Its complex postwar political arrangement also sees representatives of the Bosniak, Croatian and Serbian communities serve together as head of state and take turns to act as chairman.
Under its new strategy for Bosnia, the EU asked the country's leaders to agree a reform agenda and a timetable for its implementation, a task Bosnia has since completed.
But other conditions have remained pending, such as the creation of an effective decision-making mechanism for dealing with the EU, and the adjustment of a trade agreement to meet the terms of the SAA.
"If we have progress on these two issues, our application will be successful," Crnadak said.
The European Commission, the EU's executive, has said the bloc will support Bosnia's reforms with 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion) over the next three years, and a further 500 million euros for investment in infrastructure.
The EU now has 28 member states, including the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia. Other EU candidate countries include Turkey, Albania and three other ex-Yugoslav republics -- Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.
Crnadak said relations with the rest of the Balkans were Bosnia's other top foreign policy priority. It was currently "satisfied with the messages coming from Serbia and Croatia" -- something which has not always been the case, he added.
Ties between Bosnia and Serbia were severed in 2006, largely because of Serbia's arrest and trial of a Bosnian official for war crimes committed during the 1992-95 war. But they have been gradually repaired over recent years as both countries try to improve their cases for EU membership.
Another sensitive issue for Bosnia, given its recent history, is the current rise in nationalist rhetoric in Europe.
That is being fed by the huge migrant inflow from Syria and other troubled countries, but also by more general disillusionment with the way Brussels is run.
"It is very important for our region. I hope it will not produce another high level xenophobia or similar problems," Crnadak said.
"The populists that might want to use this kind of atmosphere in Europe should not prevail. Europe should have a proper response."
(Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela in Sarejevo; Editing by Catherine Evans)