MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Alarm bells are ringing in the divided Bosnian city of Mostar as the man known as its "eternal mayor" is ailing in a foreign hospital and there's currently no way for him to be replaced.
Ljubo Beslic, who has run the picturesque Herzegovinian city since 2004, is the focus of an extraordinary saga in which Mostar is unable to replace its controversial 61-year-old chief administrator.
There is no deputy mayor to fill in for Beslic, who is in a Zagreb hospital reportedly suffering from heart and kidney problems. There is also no city council to elect a new mayor, as it was disbanded in 2012 when its members' mandates expired.
Meanwhile, court rulings and a seemingly never-rending political impasse in Sarajevo -- the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina and its functionally-challenged central government -- have prevented Mostar from staging any type of election since 2009 when Beslic was reappointed by the city council to a second four-year term.
Although Beslic's democratic mandate also expired in 2012, he remains in office on a "technical mandate" as "interim mayor" until fresh elections are held.
But Bosnia's Constitutional Court has ruled that Mostar cannot conduct a new local ballot until the parliament in Sarajevo reforms the country's election laws.
A six-month deadline imposed by the Constitutional Court in 2010 has failed to push lawmakers from the main Croat and Bosniak political parties into an agreement on the necessary reforms.
But on October 30, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that the current situation deprives Mostar's citizens of the right to vote.
The court gave Bosnian lawmakers a new six-month deadline to pass reforms so that Mostar residents can vote for a new city council in October 2020 -- when local elections are held across the country.
That ruling also noted that Bosnia's Constitutional Court has "the power to set up interim arrangements" if the election law isn't amended by April 30.
Until then, Mostar will remain in a state of limbo -- without any chief administrator -- as long as Beslic remains debilitated, if he resigns, or if he should die.
Sources within Beslic's administration have told RFE/RL that he was flown from the Mostar University Clinic to a hospital in Zagreb on November 30 for "urgent" medical treatment.
Those sources say Beslic has been "having heart issues for years" and that "heart-related drugs have affected his kidneys." Sources told RFE/RL he was still receiving treatment as of December 9.
The Reflection Group on Mostar -- a group set up in 2018 by the Congress of the Council of Europe -- has been trying to help Bosnia's political factions find a solution that restores democracy to the city.
The group's organizer, Renate Zikmund, told RFE/RL that Beslic's hospitalization "increases the urgency" of getting Mostar out of its "incredible vacuum" of democracy.
"Absolutely, it raises and adds to the urgency of finding a solution very soon," she said. "The failure of the political parties there, and in the country as a whole, has brought the city into an impossible situation."
For his part, Beslic has praised the European Court ruling -- saying the April 2020 deadline for election law reforms "is practically a must for our parliament" that would "solve the issue of Mostar."
"I wish more than anyone in Mostar that elections would be held -- not tomorrow but today," Beslic told the Sarajevo-based broadcaster N1 on October 31. "Why? Because you have no idea what kind of situation we have."
Beslic's aides told RFE/RL in November he was willing to discuss the unusual circumstances that have practically given him the tenure of a monarch. But his deteriorating health prevented that interview from taking place.
Unconfirmed Bosnian media reports suggest that Beslic's main adviser, Radmila Komadina, has taken over some of his responsibilities since he was hospitalized.
Both Beslic and Komadina are allies as members of Mostar's largest political party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ BiH).
But Komadina, an ethnic Serb, does not have the legal authority to take over the duties of the mayor's office. A newly elected city council would have to elect her -- or someone else -- to the post.
But in a city so starkly divided by ethnicity, it's perhaps unlikely someone from Mostar's tiny Serbian community would be chosen.
Izet Sahovic, the head of the Mostar's Finance Department, has the authority to sign documents that allow the city to continue paying its employees, contractors, and creditors.
Sahovic is a powerful, unelected Bosniak bureaucrat from Mostar's second largest party -- the Party of Democratic Action (SDA).
But he also needs authorization from a newly elected city council to legally take on additional responsibilities of the mayor's office.
City Services Nightmare
Mostar residents are infuriated and have become alienated about a situation that has paralyzed municipal services and deprived them of their right to vote.
Some have proposed that Beslic be replaced by a donkey to protest the city's political and bureaucratic dysfunction.
Beslic and Sahovic are the only municipal officials authorized to spend funds from an annual city budget of about 30 million euros ($33 million).
Between them, since the end of 2012, they've disbursed a total of about 200 million euros ($220 million) at their own discretion without legislative oversight or public transparency.
A network of NGOs called Nase Drustvo (Our Society) has named Beslic and the heads of Mostar's public utility companies in a criminal complaint alleging that the lack of public scrutiny over municipal spending allows corruption to thrive.
Nase Drustvo leader Marin Bago alleges that neither the HDZ BiH nor the SDA are interested in solving the problem because both benefit from the duplicated bureaucracies that the political gridlock has created in Mostar.
"When you follow the money, when you look at [Mostar's financial] documents, the distribution of money continues without any problem on a weekly basis," Bago told RFE/RL. "Both sides put their signatures on every payment slip."
"Things are perfectly clear," Bago said. "There are no elections because elections would disturb the way they can distribute money without any kind of oversight."
He added: "The parties that control Mostar are able to do anything they want with our money and, at the same time, nobody is being held accountable."
Mostar residents say their problems have been exemplified by uncollected piles of garbage near overflowing trash cans outside the historic city center -- areas that cannot be seen from the resplendent 16th-century Ottoman bridge that crosses the Neretva River to connect Mostar's Croat and Bosniak neighborhoods.
The health threat posed by the breeding rats and insects is a legacy of the initial years after Bosnia's 1992-1995 civil war when the Dayton peace accords divided Mostar into six municipalities -- three for Croats and three for Bosniaks.
Today, with those municipalities reformed into electoral districts for voting purposes, a different garbage collection company works in all but one of those districts.
And without a city council to guide their work, the garbage collectors can't agree on which streets are in their area of responsibility.
Which means the trash is often not collected.
Angelina, a 21-year-old university student in the southern Bosnian city, said she doesn't understand the complicated legal labyrinth that has prevented local elections from being held since she was 11 years old.
"What frustrates me is the situation with the garbage," she told RFE/RL. "When you buy a pastry in a bakery, you can't even find a trash can on the street to throw away the paper."
Bosniaks to the east of the Neretva River receive electricity from one power company while Croats in the west get electricity from another.
The water supply company, Vodovod Mostar, has two operating units -- one for each side of the city.
Mostar also has duplicate postal systems, telephone services, and cable television networks.
About 90 percent of Mostar residents have said in recent surveys that they should be able to vote on who runs the day-to-day business of their city -- from financial management and decisions about schools to the functioning of the transportation system, public utilities, and the sanitation department.
"Politicians are the ones to blame," one 40-year-old Croat man told RFE/RL in western Mostar, asking not to be identified. "There's nothing else to say. They keep power in their hands."
Bosnia's impasse over election law reforms is the result of inflexible positions by the main Bosniak and Croat parties on how to determine the number of city councilors from Mostar's three majority Croat and three majority Bosniak constituencies.
The HDZ Bih insists on the principle of "one man, one vote" -- an approach likely to strengthen its power because there are slightly more Bosnian Croat voters in Mostar.
But the SDA says Mostar should be divided into several municipalities for the purpose of elections. They say that is a necessary protection mechanism to prevent the legalization of wartime ethnic cleansing when Bosniaks held a small majority in the city.
Stewart Dickson, a lawmaker from Northern Ireland and spokesman for the Reflection Group on Mostar, says the ongoing dispute is "very simple."
"Both sides think that the other will win and that's not what they want to happen," Dickson told RFE/RL.
Meanwhile, the international community has significantly stepped up its engagement with Bosnia's political leaders in recent weeks over Mostar's vacuum of democracy.
On December 4, U.S. and European diplomats met at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo to discuss the dilemma with national SDA leader Bakir Izetbegovic and the HDZ BiH chief Dragan Covic.
Also attending those talks was Valentin Inzko, the international community's long-time high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina.
A U.S. Embassy statement said both leaders were told that "urgent steps" must be taken to allow Mostar citizens to vote in the 2020 municipal elections.
Meanwhile, delegates from the Reflection Group on Mostar visited the city on November 28 -- inviting all political parties to talks about possible resolutions.
Zikmund, the Reflection Group's organizer, told RFE/RL that all of the invited parties sent representatives to the meeting except the SDA.
For his part, Inzko told RFE/RL that it's up to Bosnia's "relevant" political and "institutional leaders to address as a priority the longstanding electoral impasse" in Mostar.
"The absence of a city council not only has real consequences for the citizens of Mostar, but also undermines democracy in Bosnia-Herzegovina and negatively effects the political climate in the country," Inzko said.
Stressing that "Mostar should not be held hostage to other issues," Inzko said it is "time for a political process, as a priority and [independent] of other issues, aimed at finding a political agreement."