Bosnia goes to the polls as ethnic divisions grow

As ethnic divisions deepen, Bosnia is set to hold general elections on Sunday amid threats of secession and fears of renewed political unrest nearly three decades after war ravaged the Balkan nation.

The country is torn between secessionist Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats calling for more autonomy, while Muslim Bosniaks calling for a more egalitarian state seem to be chasing little more than a pipe dream.

For more than two decades, the impoverished Balkan nation has been governed by a dysfunctional administrative system that emerged from the 1995 Dayton Accords.

And while the accords may have successfully ended the war in the 1990s, the country has since withered in political paralysis.

Analysts have warned that Bosnia is sinking deeper and deeper into troubled waters, with divisions along ethnic lines appearing to deepen on the eve of the elections.

“Bosnia-Herzegovina is experiencing the worst political crisis since the signing of the peace agreement,” Ranko Mavrak, a Sarajevo-based political scientist, told AFP.

“The ethnic divisions are so deep that they now pose a real threat to Bosnia’s survival and integrity,” he added.

– Complex elections –

Bosnia is divided into a Serbian entity – the Republika Srpska (RS) – and a Muslim-Croat federation, linked by a weak central government.

As Bosnia’s three main groups rarely mixed after the war, ethnic political parties long exploited the country’s fault lines to maintain power, driving hundreds of thousands abroad in search of better opportunities.

“It’s a beautiful, rich country and we could move forward with even a modicum of understanding,” said Salko Hasanefendic, 70, a businessman from Sarajevo.

“If we raise our children in such a nationalistic context today, we can only expect new nationalists in 40 years,” he told the AFP news agency.

Amidst the darkness, voters will cast their ballots in a dizzying array of contests on Sunday, including for the three members of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, MPs for the central parliament and a series of local races in the two separate entities.

Analysts say incumbents and nationalist parties are likely to dominate many of the contests as they have little to no polling data to rely on, including longtime Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who is running for the RS presidency.

For months, Dodik has been stoking tensions and calling on the Bosnian Serbs to further distance themselves from the country’s central institutions.

“This situation is like two brothers who don’t like each other,” Rajko, a pensioner and Dodik supporter who revealed his last name, told AFP ahead of a recent campaign rally.

“It’s better that they don’t live together,” he added, echoing a shared refrain from Dodik.

Amid calls for secession, many seem happy that their Serbian compatriots are leaving.

“Dodik and his kind can go to another country that they find more beautiful,” Bosnia’s former co-president Bakir Izetbegovic said at a recent rally.

Izetbegovic – the son of independent Bosnia’s first president – is running for a third term as the country’s Bosniak Muslim president but faces stiff competition from 46-year-old history professor Denis Becirovic.

Supported by 11 opposition parties, Becirovic vowed to fight for a “pro-European and united” Bosnia.

– No compromise –

Adding to growing divisions, many of the country’s Catholic Croats have been campaigning for more autonomy or electoral reforms in the run-up to the election, with leading nationalist party HDZ threatening to boycott the competition for months.

Thanks to their huge numerical advantage in the Muslim-Croat federation, Bosniak Muslims have de facto control over who can be elected to lead the Croats at the presidential level.

The HDZ and other Croatian parties have called for a mechanism that would allow the community to appoint its own representatives to the presidency and the upper house – a move fiercely opposed by the ruling Bosniak Federation Party.

Fears of possible post-election turmoil are growing if Croatia’s incumbent co-president Zeljko Komsic – widely berated by all Croatian parties – is re-elected after repeated threats from nationalists ready to widen the government’s boycott of institutions.

“At the moment there are no signs that the situation in Bosnia will stabilize,” said Mavrak, the analyst.

“There is currently no indication that it is possible to reach a compromise.”