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Nationalism High, Hopes Low In Bosnia Election


Attendees at a rally of the Alliance for a Better Future for Bosnia in Sarajevo on September 30.
Attendees at a rally of the Alliance for a Better Future for Bosnia in Sarajevo on September 30.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is gearing up for general elections amid doubts the poll can ease interethnic tensions and usher in the political reforms demanded by the international community.

More than 8,000 candidates from 39 political parties and 11 coalitions will compete in the October 3 elections for seats in the central parliament and the central presidency, which rotates among three representatives of the country's main ethnic groups: Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims).

Voters will also elect deputies for the parliaments of its two semiautonomous entities, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Croat-Bosniak federation, and choose Republika Srpska's own regional president.

Few believe the vote will break Bosnia's political impasse and bring compromise to its feuding ethnic communities.

Observers fear the elections could actually further entrench ethnic divisions as many candidates have put nationalist slogans at the heart of their electoral campaigns.

In a country like Bosnia, still reeling from an interethnic civil war that left some 100,000 dead and 2 million people displaced, this hardening nationalism has many worried.

"The campaign showed a disturbing tendency," Bosnian publicist, journalist, and writer Ivan Lovrenovic told RFE/RL. "Almost all party leaders have been using strong war rhetoric, particularly those who tap into the idea of collective ethnicity and ethnic resentment as inexhaustible sources of votes."

Divided 'On All Levels'?

The international community's high representative for the country, Valentin Inzko, released a message today in which he urged voters to put aside divisive nationalistic politics and instead vote according to issues that most concern their daily lives -- such as education, employment, and social-service policies.

Serbian President Boris Tadic has angered Bosniaks by openly backing his prime minister, Milorad Dodik, who is running for the presidency of the Serb entity.

Throughout his election campaign, Dodik has reiterated his calls for Republika Srpska to break away from Bosnia and has consistently denied that the 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys by Serb troops in Srebrenica constituted genocide.

INTERACTIVE MAP (click to enlarge)
Interethnic tensions have never run so high since the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war 15 years ago.

Ejup Ganic, a former member of Bosnia's central presidency, says the international community is not doing enough to keep Bosnian politicians in check.

"We do not have adequate supervision by the international community in terms of teaching us how to change the voting process and how to organize political parties," Ganic says. "Besides, candidates own their own television channels, newspapers, and journalists. Divisions exist in all areas. We are divided not only into two entities, but on all levels."

The international community has been pressuring Bosnia to strengthen its weak central government at the expense of its entities' autonomy.

The political reforms are considered a key condition for Bosnia's further ties with the European Union. The EU special representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina this month called on the bloc to make any future aid to the country conditional on progress in introducing reforms.

The reform process has been stalled since the last election campaign in 2006 amid fierce resistance from hard-line nationalist parties and their supporters.

Money And Apathy

The election campaign's strong focus on nationalist themes this year also means parties have largely failed to address the nation's economic woes.

Bosnia, hit hard by the global downturn, has an official unemployment rate of 40 percent, and large swaths of its economy have yet to recover from the war.

Aside from the customary promises of jobs and infrastructure, however, the election campaign has seen few concrete proposals to lift Bosnia's from its debilitating financial crisis.

Economist Svetlana Cenic says this bodes ill for the country's already poor business climate.

"Citizens have a lot more bureaucracy, a lot more bureaucrats than before," Cenic says. "It's hard to do business Bosnia-Herzegovina nowadays, it's hard to create and register new companies. Those who need the most help are those who receive the least."

WATCH: RFE/RL's Balkan Service spoke with young voters in Sarajevo, and found that they place little faith in their political leaders:

Observers say Bosnians' growing disillusionment with their leaders will translate into a low voter turnout.

Graft, cronyism, bribery, and embezzlement are rampant on the country's political scene, and parties are already trading accusations of plotting electoral fraud on October 3.

A recent study showing that ruling parties dramatically failed to make good on their last electoral promises is likely to further put off voters.

"Politicians fulfilled only 5 percent of the promises they made to citizens when they came to power," Tijana Cvjeticanin, who headed the study by the respected Bosnian civil group "Why Not," said.

If the study's estimates are correct, this means ruling parties have met only 18 of the 367 pledges made during the last election campaign four years ago.

written by Claire Bigg based on reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service
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