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Bosnia: Voters' 'Political Abstinence' Fueled By Mistrust, Frustration

  • Jolyon Naegele

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is urging Bosnians to vote for reform in 5 October parliamentary and presidential elections, warning that without further progress, the country could face international isolation. The European Union is also emphasizing what it calls the "crucial importance" of the polls for the country's European integration. As RFE/RL reports from Sarajevo, voter apathy has both diplomats and analysts worried.

Sarajevo, 1 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Winter has come early to mountainous Bosnia-Herzegovina. The season's first snow already blankets the hills surrounding Sarajevo, and cold wet weather has put a damper on political rallies in advance of presidential and parliamentary elections on 5 October.

But for many, the change of seasons is the only tangible change in Bosnia.

Sarajevo University sociology professor Salih Foco said little has changed in Bosnia since the signing of the Dayton peace accords nearly seven years ago. "Politics continues to dominate life. The political scene continues to be divided. Objectively speaking, there is considerable apathy among the population. There is an immense mistrust in the structures of authority, the political parties, and their programs," Foco said.

Foco said the situation is worse among young people, who demonstrate what he called a "total abstinence from politics." That's due, he said, to frustration with their inability to have any effect on the established parties and the failure of these parties to bring about positive change.

Bosnians go to the polls later this week to elect a new central parliament; its collective presidency, which comprises a Muslim, a Croat, and a Serb; and the assemblies of Bosnia's two entities, the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska. Foco predicted that about 40 percent of the electorate will not vote, in what he described as the highest level of public apathy in 50 years.

Such voter apathy is of concern not only to those within Bosnia but to the international community, as well. In a prerecorded television address, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday urged Bosnians to vote for reform, warning that without further progress, the country could face international isolation. Powell said a vote for reform would push Bosnia forward toward a "free market and integration into Europe."

The European Union yesterday also emphasized what it called the "crucial importance" of the polls for the country's European integration, as has the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, Clifford Bond.

But Foco believes the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the 3 1/2 years of war in Bosnia and that implemented a massive international civilian and military presence are a poor starting point for change. He said the accords established a system that reaffirmed wartime ethnic cleansing by keeping the country's three main nations, Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs, and Croats, physically separated.

As Foco put it, "The entire structure of the Dayton agreement is built upon the disintegration of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is divided into two entities, completely separate, like independent states." He continued: "[But] if you look at it constitutionally, at the formal structure of Republika Srpska, [like the Muslim-Croat Federation,] you see it has all the elements of an independent state. It has its own army, its own court system, its own president, its own police, its own customs service, and its own fully legitimate organs of administration. So, essentially, it has everything, though officially [along with the Federation in a single Bosnian state], it is the united product of the figures and personalities who made history [such as former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, and former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic], as well as the [Serbian], [Croatian], and Bosnian peoples."

As a result of this situation, Foco said it remains unclear "where political-party functions end and state institutions begin," resulting in political parties completely paralyzing state institutions. Foco accuses the party leaderships of serving only their own interests and ignoring the law, respect for human rights, and the need for economic investment.

Another Sarajevo University professor, political scientist Gajo Sekulic, said the current campaign is strongly reminiscent of the campaign leading up to the November 1990 elections, on the eve of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. That's when the public voted for national-oriented parties, which led Bosnia into war just over a year later. "What this means is that the public is [again] coming under pressure from the phenomenon of national parties, which are gaining in strength [and] renewing themselves through homogenization and reintegration [with smaller, like-minded parties]. And national [-oriented] parties have a very serious chance in these elections," Sekulic said.

Sekulic said he would prefer to see the Bosniak Social Democrats win, since the alternative is the resurgence of national parties, not only the main ones but others he described as the "rear guard of nationalism." These parties offer themselves as a moderate alternative to nationalism but are still nationally oriented.

Sekulic said these parties include Haris Silajdzic's Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kresimir Zubak's New Croatian Initiative, and Milorad Dodik's Social Democratic Party in Republika Srpska, not to be confused with the federation-based Social Democrats.

In Sekulic's view, these "positive nationalist parties," as he calls them, are certainly preferable to the traditional "big three" nationally oriented parties -- the Party of Democratic Action, or SDA; the Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ; and the Serbian National Party, or SNS -- but they are still a liability for Bosnia's future. "Politically speaking, it would be a catastrophe for Bosnia-Herzegovina if the second-rung parties of positive nationalism win, since on the whole, they have no political identity," Sekulic said.

Sekulic is particularly critical of Silajdzic's party, which he views as excessively centralized and undemocratic. "They only dream of a sovereign, united, centralized Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state. These are centralist projects. That's democracy on a level of the centralist road to democracy. But democracy is something far broader. It presumes immense participation of broad-based groups of citizens who give a seal of approval to the political distribution, the political atmosphere of the country before and during the elections," Sekulic said.

In the ethnically divided city of Mostar, a leading local commentator and general manager of the local private radio and television station RTV Mostar, Alija Behram, said progress has been made in Mostar since the last elections less than two years ago. He noted that the situation is peaceful, that people are able to move about freely, and that there has been a "massive return" of displaced persons to the homes they inhabited before the war.

At the same time, he said, plenty of problems remain unresolved in the region of Herzegovina, of which Mostar is the administrative center. "Municipal authority in the whole area around Mostar, in all six municipalities [of Herzegovina], is incredibly sluggish. The bureaucracy makes people bitter over having to pay hundreds of different taxes and fees and having to purchase and fill out forms to prove that a property was theirs, when they should be able to just move back home," Behram said.

Behram said thousands of families are still unable to return to their homes -- exiled on one side of town, just a kilometer or so from their homes across the former front lines between the Croats on Mostar's west side and the Bosniaks (Muslims) on the east side.

Croats in the neighboring municipality of Stolac, which before the war had a Bosniak majority, expelled the Serbian and Bosniak populations during the war. So far, hardly any Serbs have returned, while slightly more than half the 8,000 expelled Bosniaks have come back.

But one of the returnees, Stolac municipal council Chairman Zoran Turkovic, noted that local Croatian officials remain in the majority and have the last word because of the continued presence in Stolac of several thousand displaced ethnic Croats from central Bosnia, who can vote for local officials. In protest, the Bosniak members are boycotting the council.

Moreover, the municipality still has separate schools and clinics for Croats and Bosniaks, in a system Turkovic, a member of Silajdzic's party, terms "apartheid." "I can say that we in Stolac aren't very satisfied with the way our Bosnia-Herzegovina authorities have been helping Stolac. We are lagging behind and are forgotten by the senior levels in the canton and federation. They help us very little and could do so much more. The international community helps us more than do our domestic institutions and politicians. Hopefully, the new elections will bring in new people," Turkovic said.

And in Bosnia's other entity, Republika Srpska, Banja Luka sociologist Miodrag Zivanovic said the situation has changed so little in recent years that there is no point in even voting. Zivanovic is leading a campaign to boycott the elections.

In contrast, the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, Clifford Bond, is urging the public to turn out and vote. "This is a very important election. Not only is it going to give a four-year mandate to a new government, it's coming at a time in which Bosnia has an opportunity to really make a lot of progress in terms of integration with Europe. I hope the voters will go out to vote. It's a concern, I think. I have heard the same concern expressed about nationalists winning the election. I think that is more likely if people don't vote. We find that many moderate voters, many of the better-educated voters, are people who say they are undecided and wouldn't go out to vote," Bond said.

Bond said he hopes people will vote, not out of fear, but for the future. "There should be no fear of a war reviving. There should be no concern about a division or partition of this country. The international community is committed to the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. So people should be thinking about the future and get beyond the past. I happen to think that the government that's in power now, the Alliance Coalition, has done a relatively good job in a year-and-a-half period. They've had to overcome things like a third-entity movement. They've done a lot in terms of macroeconomic stability. Most recently, they got an [International Monetary Fund] program," Bond said.

The U.S. ambassador said the United States would like to see the international presence in Bosnia removed when conditions are right. But to do that, he said, the international community needs partners in the host governments at the entity and state levels. And that, Bond said, is why the 5 October elections are important. If the voters can give the international community partners, then, as Bond said, "We can move much faster toward creating the institutions, creating the conditions to allow Bosnia to become part of Europe, and to remove the need for this exceptional international presence."

"Dayton was a compromise," he said. "There are many elements of Dayton that still need to be implemented. More work needs to be done on refugee returns. More work needs to be done on reconstruction of monuments, religious and cultural monuments, and on the apprehension of war criminals. Dayton provides a constitutional foundation for the state [of] Bosnia and Herzegovina."

As Bond put it, if the constitution is to change, it has to be done on the basis of the consensus of the three constituent peoples. However, as long as consensus among Bosnia's three main peoples is lacking, those changes will continue to seem unlikely.