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Bosnia: Voter Frustration, Apathy High In Bosnia-Herzegovina Ahead Of 5 October Elections

  • Jolyon Naegele

Bosnia-Herzegovina holds parliamentary and presidential elections on 5 October for the fourth time since the signing of the Dayton peace accords nearly seven years ago. But apathy and frustration with the lack of change in Republika Srpska is high, which means voter turnout is likely to be low.

Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina; 27 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Bosnia's two entities -- Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation -- are awash in political campaign posters showing politicians wearing forced smiles.

There is little to be happy about, however, particularly in the Bosnian Serb entity, where investment is minimal and unemployment around 40 percent. Analysts say voter apathy is at an all-time high, a fact that could well mean low voter turnout and a weak mandate for those who are elected.

The public is frustrated over the relative absence of tangible changes since the last elections in November 2000 and skeptical that real change will come about anytime soon. Nearly seven years after the Dayton peace accords ended the 3 1/2-year war, a large share of the population remains displaced -- unwilling or unable to return to their homes in Muslim- and Croat-administered cantons in the federation.

The main party in Republika Srpska, the Serbian National Party -- estimated to have nearly 40 percent support in the Bosnian Serb entity -- continues to urge voters "to vote Serbian," as if to vote for any other party would be a betrayal.

The party's strident tone has moderated only marginally in recent years, due in large part to pressure from the international community, which through the Office of the High Representative oversees how Bosnia-Herzegovina is run and, if warranted, interferes. On occasion, it has dismissed senior officials and even banned parties from participating in elections.

Nevertheless, these elections are different from past elections. For the first time since the 1992-95 war, they are being organized by Bosnia-Herzegovina rather than by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). And the mandate of the next parliament will be for four years instead of two.

Zora Stamarovic runs a small diner that she has been leasing for the past three years in the center of Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska. She says she will vote for her nation -- a discreet way of saying she'll vote for the Serb National Party.

A shopkeeper in the western town of Bihac before the war, she fled with her family at the outbreak of hostilities in April 1992 along with nearly 20,000 Serb residents, out of fear, she says, of being harmed by the Muslim majority. The Stamarovic family was repeatedly forced to move on as fronts shifted and food became scarce. The family moved five times across western Bosnia and northern Serbia before finally settling in Banja Luka in 1997.

For the sake of her children, Stamarovic says, she and her husband recently traded their house in Bihac -- now almost entirely Bosniak -- for one in Banja Luka. Stamarovic is skeptical that the 5 October parliamentary elections will have any tangible impact on her life.

"I expect things will stay the same -- no change. Things can't change. They'll just remain the same as now, though plenty should be changed. But the poor just get poorer and the few who are rich get richer," Stamarovic says.

"Milka" is a former Russian language high-school teacher from the western town of Bosanski Petrovac who has been in Banja Luka ever since the end of the fighting in 1995, when the town's Serbs fled. She founded a small firm where she and her adult children work, preparing educational programs.

Milka says she expects no marked changes as a result of the upcoming elections: "I certainly don't expect any [changes] as long as the legal system is unregulated, as long as there's no rule of law. Western Europe has taken 200 years and America, I don't know how long to set the rules of the game, so everything there is regulated by laws. Here, since the war, the old order just isn't valid anymore -- nothing has been really restored. It's all just on paper. A real effort is needed to direct things so that if I break the law, I'll be punished."

And in this legal vacuum, Milka notes, corruption is rampant throughout the country.

The international community's high representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, this week announced a five-point anticorruption program to clean up the political scene and make Bosnia the most attractive country in the region for foreign investment.

But Milka says Ashdown and his predecessor, Wolfgang Petritsch, have failed to resolve the issue of returns or the related issues of jobs and property and tend to oversimplify things. She says it is one thing to return and quite another to make a living in what can be a rather hostile environment: "I'm so irritated when the international community, the former [High Representative] Petritsch, and the current one, Ashdown, insist on returns. I certainly don't believe I will ever return [to Bosanski Petrovac]. It's my birthplace, it's full of memories, but as much as I'd like to return, there is no work for me or my children there. That means quite simply, there's no return. You can get back your house or flat, but you can't live off its walls. You've got to work. You've got to find a way of having a quality life, not just inhabit a flat or house."

Milka's flat in Petrovac is occupied by a displaced person from Kotor Varos now in Republika Srpska, who in turn cannot return because his home was destroyed. She has appealed to the local and federation authorities, so far without results. In her words: "I'm not a humanitarian organization [offering assistance to the needy]...nor can I just go back [to Petrovac] with a gun and say, 'Give me the keys to my flat.'"

Banja Luka University sociology Professor Miodrag Zivanovic accuses the international community of having lost all interest in promoting democratic forces in Bosnia or elsewhere in the region. He is leading a small campaign in the local news media to boycott the elections: "Several months ago, I posed the question whether it makes any sense at all to hold elections in a state that is to a great extent a protectorate."

Zivanovic says the public has reacted by branding him a heretic, but he says he is not dissuaded and still sees no reason to vote. He predicts a very low voter turnout.

He says the high representative and the OSCE are no longer interested in whether nationalist or other non-democratic parties win. For example, the Serbian Radical Party of Belgrade ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj, whom the international community barred from participating in the elections two years ago, is running in the current Bosnian elections: "I don't think these elections will bring anything new and won't bring about any changes. It's all the same. The political parties are running the same or similar campaigns as in previous years, and this campaign is unfortunately brutal, petty and a settling of political accounts."

Zivanovic says there isn't a political party that is offering a normal program, that offers projects for economic and educational reform, rather than merely competing for power. Moreover, he notes it is the national-oriented parties that are dominating -- the Serb SDS, the Bosniak or Muslim SDA, and the Croat HDZ. He predicts that the mainly Bosniak Social Democratic Party, which strives to be above ethnic politics and took first place in the federation elections two years ago, is likely to fall well behind the national-oriented SDA this time around.

Zivanovic says a resurgence of national-oriented parties "will block opportunity for the future" and threatens a "remake" of the 1991 elections, which catapulted national parties to power and was followed a year later by war. But Zivanovic concedes that voter abstention may well strengthen the national-oriented parties, whose members can be relied on to turn out and vote.

On a brief visit to Sarajevo on 26 September, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana urged Bosnia's citizens to vote for those "who will continue the process of reforms." He described the 5 October general elections as a "key element" for Bosnia "to keep on moving towards Europe."

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