Is Bosnia One Step Closer to Unity — or Collapse?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Oleg Popov / Reuters

Bakir Izetbegovic, left, took the Muslim spot in Bosnia's three-seat presidency

It was the day before the Bosnian elections, and in the northeastern city of Tuzla, the popular alternative band Dubioza Kolektiv was playing a get-out-the-vote concert to a packed audience. But even amid the excitement of the young crowd, Damir Dajanovic was not getting his hopes up. As long as the 21-year-old political activist could remember, his fragile country has been paralyzed by postwar ethnic divisions, corruption and a convoluted political system divided among Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs. "People are frustrated by everything in this country and yet, at the end of the day, they do not want to give up their ethnic alliances, either," he says. "They say, 'Yes, this politician is bad, but at least he is ours.' I hope I am wrong about this election, but this is how it always seems to be."

With partial results in after Sunday's vote, Dajanovic is no doubt disappointed to see that the ethnic divisions that have stymied Bosnia's political and economic development remain. But he, like many others, may also be allowing himself a glimmer of hope. While the Serb seat on the country's tripartite presidency went to Nebojsa Radmanovic, the incumbent Bosnian Serb whose party advocates secession, the Muslim seat — representing half the population — passed from the hard-liner incumbent to a moderate: Bakir Izetbegovic, son of Bosnia's wartime President Alija Izetbegovic, who says he supports a unified Bosnia and wants to work with ethnic Serbs. The Croat incumbent who won re-election, Zeljko Komsic, also promotes a unified Bosnia.

Bosnians have voted for change — but the question now is whether the change will bring the country together or tear it apart. Long-simmering ethnic tensions exploded when Yugoslavia disintegrated almost 20 years ago, culminating in a war that killed 100,000 people — most of them Bosnian Muslims — and displaced half of the country's 4 million people. Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is currently on trial at the Hague for genocide and war crimes in connection with the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.

But it seems many Bosnians would like to put this terrible past behind them. A recent poll by the National Democratic Institute showed that all three ethnic groups are tired of nationalist rhetoric and desperately worried about their country's future. Even the Serbs, who have been the most resistant to a unified Bosnia, look ready to move on: Radmanovic only just defeated the moderate Mladen Ivanic, who had mainly campaigned on economic reform.

According to Srecko Latal, Balkans analyst with the International Crisis Group, if Izetbegovic follows through on conciliation with the Serbs and tackles the country's structural problems, he could break the country's political deadlock. "I hope he makes a difference," Latal says. "Because if we have another four years like the past four years, this would put the country on the brink of disintegration. And it's highly unlikely the country will disintegrate peacefully."

And if Bosnia falls apart, the whole region will suffer, says Ioannis Armakolas, director of a Balkans task force led by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Hellenic Centre for European Studies in Athens. "A weakened and potentially unstable Bosnia will inevitably bring the region's mutually reinforced ethnic problems back to the forefront, wiping out the progress achieved in the last 10 years." he says.

The U.S.-brokered 1995 Dayton peace accord that ended the 1992-95 war split Bosnia and Herzegovina into two semiautonomous political entities: the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic. Each region has its own governments, linked by weak central institutions in Sarajevo. This unwieldy system was supposed to evolve when Bosnians could find a way to work together. But mistrust between the Muslims and the Serbs lingers, exacerbating divisions and preventing any serious economic and social reforms.

To have any hope, Bosnia badly needs to rebuild its economy. It's one of the poorest nations in Europe; almost half of the population is unemployed and 20% of Bosnians live below the poverty line. The economy is expected to grow by only 0.5% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Latal, the International Crisis Group analyst, says both the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic must drastically reduce public spending, reform a bloated and inefficient pension fund and push to privatize major companies.

"It would be wonderful if Bosnians could feel like they could work and be productive and change this country, but there are no jobs," says Ajdin Dakusic, a 23-year-old mechanical engineering student at the University of Sarajevo. "I am thinking I must leave and go to Europe or North Africa, anywhere else, even though I care about this country and want to help here."

Many of the 1 million Bosnians who fled during the war and emigrated abroad also want to help — but only a fraction of them registered to vote in Sunday's election. Iris Basic, 27, a marketing professional who now lives in Oslo, says she's very discouraged when she returns to her hometown of Mostar, in the country's south, which is now divided into Croat and Muslim sections.

Basic flew into Bosnia from Oslo last week to work in a massive voter-turnout drive. She cast her vote early and traveled all over the country to cheer on her friends in the activist rock band Dubioza Kolektiv, who crisscrossed the country holding concerts and beseeching young Bosnians, among the country's most apathetic voters, to go to the polls. Still, voter turnout this year was 56%, only a few points higher than the last national election four years ago.

"Voters' excuse for not participating in our country is that all politicians are the same," Basic says. "Maybe they're right, but I don't want to listen to this excuse anymore. I'm tired of it. We must make the politicians keep their word."