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Divide And Rule? Complex Ethnic Problems Dominate Bosnian Campaign


People wait at a bus stop draped in election posters in the Bosnia capital, Sarajevo, late last month.

More than two decades after its signing, Bosnia-Herzegovina is still guided by a stopgap settlement, known as the Dayton Agreement, which brought postwar order to curb hostilities among its three main ethnic groups.

The accord split the country into two entities: the ethnic Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat federation of Muslims and Croats. The two are linked by joint state-level institutions, including a tripartite presidency.

And therein lies the predicament, according to many diplomats, Bosnians, and analysts alike.

It's a conspicuous problem as the fractious country of nearly 4 million people goes to the polls on October 7 to elect four presidents, two vice presidents, five parliamentary legislatures, and 10 canton assemblies.

The country's eighth postwar elections are likely to clarify little in the bureaucratic maze running of one of the world's most complex democracies, which is wracked by a failing economy, rampant corruption, and nationalist forces that threaten to tear it apart.

"It's a tough situation here, people are voting for the parties according to their ethnicity. Until we get away from that attitude, the perspective isn't going to change," Dalibor Zonic, a retired engineer who lives in the capital, Sarajevo, told RFE/RL.

'Poisonous Atmosphere'

Politics since the 1995 agreement has been dominated by nationalist rhetoric instead of moving toward rebuilding a country ravaged by three years of war that left some 100,000 dead following the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.

But the current election campaign has been brutal enough for the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo to enter the fray, putting out a strongly worded statement on September 27, noting that public discourse in Bosnia has been "entirely dominated by fear-based rhetoric," which has created a "very poisonous atmosphere."

It warned that "efforts of politicians immediately prior to elections to blind citizens to their true intentions by ceremoniously opening traffic circles, offering free services in hospitals, and other ostensibly helpful activities are a mockery and insult to citizens in Bosnia."

Amid accusations from some quarters that U.S. officials were interfering in the vote, the U.S. statement went on to accuse Bosnian politicians of "misusing public funds and dragging war criminals into campaigns [and] falsely accusing long-standing supporters of Bosnia and Herzegovina of engaging in hostile activities."

Western leaders have meanwhile accused Moscow of interfering in the internal affairs of Bosnia and other former Yugoslav republics.

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik (file photo)
Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik (file photo)

Though unspoken, the focus of many has been Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, who has two decades of electoral politics under his belt and is running this time for the Serbs' seat in Bosnia's tripartite presidency.

The Bosnian Serb leader, who has openly advocated for independence from the rest of Bosnia, last month accused the United States of using its development agency to interfere in Bosnia's internal affairs and election process, a charge dismissed by Washington.

Once seen by the West as a moderate who would break with the militant Serbian nationalism that led to the Balkan conflict in the 1990s, Dodik has taken a page from nationalist and populist leaders of the past. His current campaign has also included visits from former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and Corey Lewandowski, U.S. President Donald Trump's former campaign manager.

Scarce and mainly unreliable opinion polls, coupled with accusations of electoral fraud and irregularities, make it difficult to accurately predict the Bosnian vote results at a time when the country will either follow the path of deeper Euro-Atlantic integration or fall into a hole dug by ethnic rivalries.

"Opinion polls suggest turnout…for Bosnia's general elections will be below 50 percent in the larger of the country's two entities, the Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation. Hardly surprising but a further blow to Dayton-era democratic legitimacy all the same," said Jasmin Mujanovic, a political scientist and author of Hunger And Fury: The Crisis Of Democracy In The Balkans.

In the meantime, the hope that elections will change the country's course seemed to be diminishing.

'Irresponsible Rhetoric'

One of Europe's poorest countries, with an average monthly wage of just over $460, Bosnia's unemployment rate stands at more than 20 percent. The jobless figure spikes to more than 45 percent among young people, who are emigrating -- estimated at about 20,000 annually -- in search of the opportunities politicians have failed to generate at home.

"No party is welcome..." A sign castigating Bosnia's political class in the village of Podgora.
"No party is welcome..." A sign castigating Bosnia's political class in the village of Podgora.

Party platforms have been noticeably bereft of specifics on how to heal the economic malaise or bring Bosnia closer to its main foreign policy goal -- European Union membership.

"It's not only irresponsible rhetoric that is a concern, but also the persistent nationalistic policies of some politicians. Those who remember the 1990s still remember the destruction that such nationalism brought to the Balkans, and especially Bosnia," Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat currently serving as the High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, said.

"Of course, politicians largely avoid responsibility for the emigration of the best and smartest people in this country, but it is clear that those who prevent the efficient and successful functioning of the state, while hiding behind nationalist rhetoric, are to blame in this case."

Local media have noted that one village has starker words for how its residents feel about the country's politicians.

Podgora, with around 700 residents and lying just outside the capital, heard enough during the campaign and banned politicians from entering the area.

"You've been lying to us for years. No party is welcome in Podgora," reads a white banner strung across the village's main square.

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