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Bosnian Elections A Triumph For Nationalist Parties

Election night in Srebrenica was tense. The two sides gathered on opposite sides of the street as one celebrated -- with a police cordon in between.
Election night in Srebrenica was tense. The two sides gathered on opposite sides of the street as one celebrated -- with a police cordon in between.

It was not about "the economy, stupid." It was not about jobs. It was not about general impoverishment. It was about identity. The three nationalist parties -- Bosnian Muslim, Serb, and Croat -- are the clear winners of the Bosnian local elections.

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik's (Serbian) Alliance of Independent Social Democrats posted its best results in a decade. At a press conference after preliminary results were announced on October 3, Dodik told journalists that his policy of defending the existence of Republika Srpska (an entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina) had been his winning card, and that people recognized who would betray them and who would protect them.

Just before the press conference, a journalist spotted Dodik on the phone and asked whom he was speaking with. Dodik thought for a moment and then, through a half-smile, said, "I was talking to Moscow!" It appeared to have been intended as a reminder of his preelection meeting with the Russian president, which made some people nervous.

Only a week before the elections, Dodik went through with a controversial referendum on marking a "statehood day" holiday on January 9. The Bosnian Constitutional Court had requested that the date of any such celebration be changed because that date, apart from being an Orthodox holiday, harks back to events that led up to the outbreak of war in 1992 and heralded the policy of ethnic cleansing -- giving rise to a perception that the current Statehood Day excludes non-ethnic Serbian residents of Republika Srpska. But Dodik presented the dispute as a threat to Republika Srpska's very existence, energizing his nationalist base and propelling him to a resounding victory. (The head of the leading opposition party in Republika Srpska has already announced that he is thinking of resigning.)

Dodik's referendum meant that wartime rhetoric dominated the media during the campaign ahead of Bosnia's local elections, entrenching nationalist feeling in Bosnia's other entity, the Muslim-Croat Federation. Nationalists won convincingly, even though more than 100 political parties contested the elections.

Velika Kladusa, in Bosnia's northwest, elected a convicted war criminal, Fikret Abdic, as mayor.

Despite winning every district in Sarajevo, Party of Democratic Action (SDA) leader Bakir Izetbegovic wasn't ready to declare victory.
Despite winning every district in Sarajevo, Party of Democratic Action (SDA) leader Bakir Izetbegovic wasn't ready to declare victory.

Meanwhile, although defeated in two important regional centers (Zenica and Bihac) -- a change from the 2012 elections -- the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) managed for the first time to win in every district of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. Yet the SDA's leader and the current Bosniak member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, was reluctant to claim a major victory. Instead, he drew attention to the uncertainty in Srebrenica, where late on election night it was still unclear whether Bosniak incumbent Camil Durakovic had been reelected mayor or -- for the first time since the war -- the post was won by an ethnic Serb, Mladen Grujicic. Preliminary results suggested Grujicic had narrowly won, 51 percent to Durakovic's 48 percent.

Wartime Wounds Still Raw

Election night in Srebrenica was tense. One side of the main street was occupied by forlorn supporters of Durakovic; on the other side, a cafe was packed with revelers celebrating Grujicic's victory in anticipation of an official announcement. Some unfurled Serbian flags, and shouts of "Victory! Victory!" could be heard. The two groups were separated by a Republika Srpska police cordon.

The SDA's seemingly untenable stance during the election campaign was that no Serb could be elected mayor of Srebrenica. That is a position that was reiterated by Husein Kavazovic, the president of the Islamic Community of Bosnia, among others.

The facts that Srebrenica is mired in poverty, unemployment is high among both Serbs and Muslims, and the city's prewar infrastructure has not been rebuilt did not feature prominently in the election campaign. Srebrenica arguably needs a mayor whose priority will be to bring jobs and investment to the city, not merely someone to guard the memory of the terrible tragedy of July 1995, when the Bosnian Serb army executed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. But the election seemingly boiled down to the question of whether the mayor would be a Muslim or a Serb.

Banja Luka analyst Svjetlana Cenic told N1 TV that both Dodik and Izetbegovic should have spent election night in Srebrenica in order to calm local passions. "Dodik should have been there to ensure that the celebrations following the Serbian candidate's victory were more muted," Cenic said, adding, "Izetbegovic's job should have been to reassure Durakovic's supporters, that the election of a Serbian mayor was not the end of the world and that he should be given chance to govern."

The problem, of course, is not that the new mayor might be a Serb but that the new mayor of Srebrenica might be someone who cannot bring himself to use the word "genocide" when describing the crime committed there in 1995. Just as the problem with Abdic's election in Velika Kladusa is not his identity as a Muslim or Bosniak, but the fact that he is a convicted war criminal whose return to the political stage reopens wartime wounds.

Can a Bosnian Serb like Mladen Grujicic be mayor of Srebrenica?
Can a Bosnian Serb like Mladen Grujicic be mayor of Srebrenica?

Speaking from Banja Luka as the results were coming in from Srebrenica, Dodik conceded that a great crime took place there and the memory of that crime will be preserved -- but also that it was time to raise awareness of the sufferings of the Serbian people and to seek sympathy for crimes committed against Serbs.

In other words, nothing new on the Balkan front.

To borrow from 19th-century French historian Ernest Renan's phrase that "Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation," getting history right is also seemingly an essential part of building peace in the Balkans.

But the Bosnian local elections suggest that each ethnic group remains concerned primarily with its own sense of victimhood, despite the benefits that would accrue if Bosnians voted as citizens, rather than merely members of this or that ethnic group.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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