Bosnia prepares for crucial poll
Entrenched ethnic divisions could deepen as voters head to the polls after campaign dominated by nationalist rhetoric.
Last Modified: 02 Oct 2010 03:06 GMT
Bosnia's elections are taking place on Sunday, but the country is still riven by conflict related ethnic tensions [Reuters] 

Almost 15 years after the end of Bosnia's bloody inter-ethnic war, the country is preparing to go to the polls in an election that is expected to further entrench bitter post-conflict divisions.

On Sunday, Bosnia will elect new national and local parliaments, as well as the members of its collective tripartite presidency, which has one representative from each ethnic group.

After a campaign dominated by nationalist rhetoric, experts say Bosnia's elections are unlikely to help the Central European country escape the snare of ethnic division that has stopped the wounds of conflict from healing.

Bosnia is split into a Serb republic and Muslim-Croat federation, which are governed by weak central institutions in Sarajevo. The separation is so pronounced that at times it has looked as though the country is on the verge of splitting along ethnic lines.

That is certainly an option for one presidential hopeful, Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity, who has openly floated the idea of independence for Bosnian Serbs since Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008.

Reform push

Bosnia is caught between a rock and a hard place. With the international community making demands for key political reforms to secure the country's European future, Sarajevo is coming under external pressure to reduce the autonomy of its component parts.

The European Union wants to a see a stronger central government in the country, but that would mean taking away some of the devolved power granted to ending years of bloodshed. 

If such reforms were passed, Republika Srpska could decide to break away from Sarajevo's rule entirely. "It would be best for Bosnia if we separated amicably," Dodik has said more than once.

The Bosnian-Serb position has prompted the Muslim member of the tripartite presidency, Haris Silajdzic, to accuse Serbs of being a roadblock to reform and jeopardising the country's future progress. He is a fierce opponent of independence for Republika Srpska.

'Blind alley'

The EU's top envoy to Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, recently urged the country's leaders to leave the "blind alley" they have marched down "by accident or by design", warning that Serbian secession would represent a "posthumous triumph" for Slobodan Milosevic, the late president of Yugoslavia and Serbia.

Criticism from European foreign ministers for Bosnia's interminable infighting has been building. "Bosnia and Herzegovina's political representatives have failed to act in the interests of all Bosnians," Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, and William Hague, his British counterpart, said in a joint article on Thursday.

"A higher priority has been placed on localism, nationalism and narrow interests than on well-being of the people of the country," the two ministers said.

Little progress has been made towards ending the deadlock since the last election in 2006, and few analysts predict a breakthrough on Sunday. In fact, some experts believe things will get worse in the Balkans.

"Continued worsening of relations among Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Croat and Serb leaders, compounded by a fiscal meltdown after the 2010 elections, could transform public dissatisfaction into ethnic tensions and violence," the International Crisis Group think tank warned in its latest study on Bosnia.

Ethnic sensitivities

Bosnia's political system was part of the internationally-brokered Dayton peace agreement, which ended three years of inter-ethnic fighting sparked by the break-up of Yugoslavia that left almost 100,000 people dead, and millions displaced. 

Critics point out that Dayton was designed to end bloodshed, and was not a sustainable way in which to organise a country, but ethnic sensitivities have remained and reform has been far harder than anticipated.

Despite this, some remain hopeful that Sunday's vote will contribute to Bosnia breaking out of its post-war divisions. 

"I am actually sure that we are witnessing nearly ... a new beginning of the country and a chance for a new start of the region as well," said Zlatko Lagumdzija, leader of the largest opposition Social Democratic Party, tipped in popularity polls to win in the Muslim-Croat federation.

But even optimists like Lagumdzija admits that the future of Bosnia as a viable state may be riding on the outcome of Sunday's vote.

"If things are to remain the same, I'm not sure that in four years we'll be holding elections for the same country," he said.

Al Jazeera and agencies
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