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By Adam Tanner
SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Talks Friday on how to overcome tensions in Bosnia are unlikely to bring a major breakthrough but could start a process leading to NATO membership and EU candidacy, Sweden's foreign minister said.
At a time when some politicians and locals say relations between rival ethnic groups have sunk to their worst level since the end of the 1992-95 war, diplomats brought together local politicians in Sarajevo to seek a lasting compromise solution.
"This is going to be the start of a process," Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister who is co-hosting the talks, told Reuters Thursday night. "There are limits to what we can do."
"What we hope to be able to do is to continue the dialogue."
The central message Bildt and co-host James Steinberg, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, will convey is that Bosnia may be left behind the rest of the region if its ethnic Serb, Muslim Bosniak and Croat leaders do not reach compromise on key issues such as constitutional reform.
All the countries of the emerging Balkans want to join the European Union but Bosnia's instability could complicate investment and development across the region. Some experts and locals say continued fundamental disagreements about Bosnia's future could lead to renewed fighting.
"The problem is that we never resolved the last war," one Sarajevo taxi driver said.
Bildt, who served as the first top international official in Bosnia after the war, said successful talks could set out, within the next few months, a path for Bosnia to join NATO and then eventually the EU.
Diplomats are hoping negotiations can resume before November 18-19, when the international community will decide whether to end the protectorate status under which an Austrian diplomat has ultimate power to overturn laws or fire officials in Bosnia.
That decision has divided the international community, with some saying Bosnia needs to stand on its own and others expressing fear that may lead to new blockades and conflicts.
Janhar Saleem, Pakistan's ambassador to Bosnia, drew a Balkan parallel with the international community's withdrawal from Afghanistan after Soviet forces left in 1989. Unsolved problems then have proved deadly and much more costly since.
"The history of this region is a history of neglect by the European Union in many ways," he said in an interview. "It's almost like a fire brigade that comes late every time."
Talks kicked off Thursday night at a late dinner with seven Bosnian political leaders on general topics, while details will be discussed Friday at a military base next to Sarajevo's airport.
"The way the talks proceed will depend on details, and the devil lies in the details," Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik told the Dnevni Avaz daily after the meeting.
(Editing by Daria Sito-Sucic and Mark Trevelyan)