SARAJEVO, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Serbia is invoking the spectre of a breakup of neighbouring Bosnia before elections there, as it battles to block the independence of its southern province of Kosovo.
Bosnia's Serbs are talking of secession in the campaign for the Oct. 1 election because Serbia is using them as a lever, analysts and diplomats say.
"Belgrade has been using Bosnian Serbs in its bargaining, telling them to speak up and say they'll claim independence if Kosovo goes," said a Sarajevo-based diplomat.
Serbia opposes independence for its southern Kosovo province, run by the United Nations since NATO military force compelled Serbia to withdraw its forces in 1999 to end what the West said was Serbian ethnic cleansing during a guerrilla war.
The West opposes the breakup of Bosnia, a two-part state bolted together by Washington from the wreckage of the 1992-95 war under the Dayton Accords -- a deal that forced exhausted, ethnically-cleansed enemies into uneasy partnership.
Western diplomats predict Kosovo's two million ethnic Albanians, representing a 90 percent majority, will get independence by the end of the year, courtesy of the United Nations and against the will of Serbia if the Belgrade government does not change its stance.
More by innuendo than open threat, the Serbs are saying: amputate Kosovo and you can watch Bosnia fall apart too, as 1.4 million ethnic Serbs elect to part company with 2.6 million Muslim Bosniaks and ethnic Croats.
Legally, no party in Bosnia has the right to secede. But then neither does Kosovo, on paper.
"We are the guarantor of peace and the constitution in this state, and it is our responsibility that Bosnia's integrity remains intact," U.S. ambassador Douglas McElhaney told the Bosnian Serb daily Nezavisne Novine earlier this month.
"Anyone who brings into question this integrity should know that we do not forget," warned McElhaney, whose office issued a further statement on Monday saying "there will be no referendum ... and that is the official policy of the U.S. government".
GENIE OUT OF THE BOTTLE
Politically, however, there is at least a theoretical risk that a determined 'people's power' movement to demand an independence referendum could become hard to resist.
EU foreign ministers warned about inflammatory campaign rhetoric last Friday, after Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik said Serbs "did not see their long-term future" in Bosnia.
Dodik warned secession would be an option if the Serb Republic were scrapped or lost its autonomy, as demanded by some Muslims and Croats who believe Bosnia can never become a unified state as long as half the country demands a separate identity.
Secession rhetoric frothed up in May after Montenegro voted to end ties to Serbia and declare an independent republic, now fully recognised and pursuing European Union membership.
Analysts say it was not surprising that Bosnian Serbs would envy the Montenegrin move and think of copying it, but it remains to be seen how genuine their threat really is.
Bosnia's international peace overseers say the separatist rhetoric is simply an ingredient in an unusually heated general election campaign, inflamed by the Serbs' defiant rejection of international demands to forge a single police force for Bosnia.
Senad Slatina of Sarajevo Center for European Integration Strategies (CEIS) says Dodik's talk can cut both ways. Besides pandering to secessionists, it wards off any threat to an ethnically exclusive Serb Republic.
"It is just a continuation of (Radovan) Karadzic's wartime policies," he said, referring to the fugitive Serb wartime leader wanted by the U.N. war crimes court on genocide charges.
"It is obvious that we are bracing for a very serious political crisis because of the Serbs' attitude," Slatina said.
Instead of completing a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU -- the first rung on the ladder to membership -- talks could be blocked by Dodik's opposition to the EU-sponsored police unification plan.
But polls show secession is popular, and Dodik may have let the genie out of the bottle, said Serb analyst Tanja Topic.
"I think he himself has been surprised with the response to all this and he has left himself very little space for manoeuvre. He's very close to the wall," said Topic.
"I think he knows he'll have to abandon this idea at a certain point. But we'll just have to wait and see."