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Bosnia: Voters To Choose Between Nationalism And Democracy

  • Jolyon Naegele

Bosnians go to the polls on 11 November to vote in general elections, the third since the Dayton peace accords five years ago. The big question is whether, as in 1996 and 1998, voters will again vote along hard-line nationalist lines or whether the effect of five years of international supervision and recent dramatic swings toward democracy in Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo will change their preferences. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele explores the issues.

Prague, 9 Nov 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Up to two-and-a-half-million voters in Bosnia will cast ballots in several elections Saturday. They will elect representatives to legislatures in the Muslim/ Croat Federation and its 10 cantons, and in the Bosnian-Serb entity Republika Srpska. They will also vote for an all-Bosnian parliament as well as for the president and vice president of Republika Srpska and leaders of one municipality, Srebrenica.

Previous legislative elections, in 1996 and 1998, reflected pre-war political divisions along ethnic lines. But there is some hope this time that the recent shift away from radical nationalism toward moderation and democracy in Croatia, Serbia, and Kosovo will serve as an example for voters in both entities in Bosnia.

A recent cartoon in the Sarajevo daily "Dnevni Ajvaz" displays three pictures. In the first a man in Croatia stretches out under a sunny sky. In the second picture, three men blink after a light is turned on in the darkness of Yugoslavia. In the third picture a man stumbles in the darkness of Bosnia-Herzegovina and asks, "Will it ever dawn here?"

The European Union's high representative in Bosnia, Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch, is urging voters across Bosnia to rethink their political allegiances. He used Ninkovic's cartoon in a speech in Sarajevo this week to appeal to voters to follow the example of moderation recently set elsewhere in former Yugoslav republics. He said a long-term protectorate is not the right answer for Bosnia.

Since the civil war that ended five years ago with the Dayton Peace accords, Bosnia has experienced a brain drain of some 100,000. Many of the highly trained have fled a homeland where more a third are still unemployed, while close to two-thirds -- including the jobless -- live in poverty.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which is supervising the elections, has produced a video clip featuring three young female singers -- a Croat, a Serb, and a Muslim from different parts of Bosnia. The three young women tell voters that they can shape their own future, and TV stations across Bosnia have been showing the clip for the last three weeks.

Among the political groups campaigning for moderation is Bosnia's multiethnic Social Democratic Party, or SDP, which functions throughout the entire nation. Party activist Bozidar Matic warns of the dangers of voting a nationalist ticket:

"Nation-oriented parties function as an ideal coalition when they are competing for power -- each one helps the other. But once they are in power, they desperately oppose each other, blocking everything that can be blocked."

SDP chairman Zlatko Lagumdzija is hoping voters will opt for responsibility rather than cast ballots according to their ethnic identity.

"The SDP is a political party which wants to work with other political parties on a responsible program. This is the only chance for Bosnia and Herzegovina, for both entities, all three peoples and Bosnia's four million people."

The SDP's moderation has upset nation-oriented parties -- including, notably, the Muslim Party of Democratic Action, or SDA -- which fear they will lose votes to the Social Democrats. SDA leader Alija Izetbegovic recently resigned the presidency of Bosnia saying he wanted to devote all his energies to party work, an indication of the serious threat he and his party perceive in the elections.

The end of the Milosevic regime in Yugoslavia is unlikely to have a significant impact on the outcome of voting in Republika Srpska. True, the Serbian Democratic Party, or SDS, which had its differences with Milosevic, has held its nationalist, anti-Western rhetoric to a minimum in the campaign. Nevertheless, an international think tank -- the International Crisis Group -- and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke have recently called for the party to be banned. The OSCE rejects the calls, saying SDS has yet to commit "a particularly egregious violation of the rules and regulations."

SDS was founded by indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, but is now distancing himself from him. The party's candidate for Republika Srpska president, Mirko Sarovic, is expected to get almost twice as many Serb votes as Milorad Dodik, his chief rival. Dodik, currently Bosnian Serb prime minister, can count on absentee ballots of numerous Muslim residents living in exile who consider him a moderating force.

Another moderate group fighting for votes in the Bosnian Serb entity, the Party of Democratic Progress, is campaigning on an economic reform and anti-corruption platform. Mladen Ivanic is the party's chairman.

"We are particularly concerned economic development, where we are the only party to propose a concept and vision for Republika Srpska for the next four years. Secondly, we oppose corruption. After the elections, we want to enact legislation making corruption illegal."

Bosnia's biggest Croatian party -- the Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ -- is warning that Bosnia's Croats face extermination if moderate parties win. HDZ's sister party in Croatia was defeated in parliamentary elections early this year after the death of the party's leader, President Franjo Tudjman. It remains to be seen whether that will have any effect on the Bosnian HDZ.

Bosnia's HDZ has earned the international community's ire by organizing a referendum on establishing a Bosnian Croat legislature. The EU's high representative has denounced -- but not banned -- the referendum.

The HDZ leader in the divided Muslim-Croat city of Mostar, Ante Jelavic, is telling Croats in Bosnia -- who in past elections have voted overwhelmingly for HDZ -- that a vote for HDZ means a vote for equal rights with the Serbs and Muslims.

"On 11 November, we are going to the polls. But we are also going into a referendum on the right of the Croat nation not to give a millimeter more or less than the Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina."

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia- Herzegovina yesterday called this year's parliamentary election campaign the "dirtiest" since the war -- even though it has been less violent than recent past campaigns. It is doubtful that the increased mudslinging will serve to persuade the people of Bosnia to vote for moderation.