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Balancing competing ethnic claims.

Globalist Analysis > Global Politics
Bosnia: From the Killing Fields to the Ballot Box
 

By T.K. Vogel | Monday, October 09, 2006
 

Despite Bosnia's peaceful and orderly elections in early October, the country may again be on the cusp of turmoil. The country's three-seat presidency features a Muslim and a Serb with radically different visions of the Bosnian government. This may not betoken civil war — but, according to T.K. Vogel, it may mean paralysis, ethnic nationalism and misery.


n October 1, Haris Silajdžic took a leisurely stroll down Sarajevo's main pedestrian street. He had good reason to be pleased with himself on that sunny and warm Sunday.

There was one surprise on election day, however. The Croat seat on the presidency went to the SDP candidate.
In what resembled an anointment more than a competitive election, voters in the Croat-Muslim Federation were about to hand him the Muslim slot on Bosnia's three-member presidency.

Silajdžic comprehensively defeated the incumbent from the nationalist Party for Democratic Action (SDA), of which he had once been a leading member.

Ballot box

Such a peaceful election was by no means preordained given the country's disastrous economic situation, the enduring division between Croats, Serbs and Muslims — and the nastiness of a campaign dominated by fear-mongering and personal attacks.

But just as discontent was breaking into the open in Central Europe with riots in Budapest's streets, Bosnians registered their unhappiness the old-fashioned way: at the ballot box.

Sidestepping

It is more than a bit ironic that under the constitution, Silajdžic's largely ceremonial role as co-president is to represent Bosnia's Muslim plurality. This war-time prime minister now owes his new position to Bosnia's division into two entities.

Silajdžic, a senior negotiator at the 1995 peace talks that resulted in the Dayton agreement, now wants to scrap the division into largely self-governing entities cemented at Dayton.
It is a division he holds to be "unnatural" and "based on genocide," as he told me two weeks ago in his corner office overlooking Sarajevo's Cathedral Square.

He was adamant that his party's platform was "European" rather than based on the aspirations of a specific ethnicity. That is, however, a claim that many Bosnians — by no means only people in Bosnia's other entity, the Serb Republic (RS) — find unconvincing.

Power shift

Silajdžic is now the closest thing to a real leader the Muslim community has had since the death, three years ago, of war-time president Alija Izetbegovic, the man who led Bosnia to independence just before the 1992-1995 war.

On the Bosnian Serb side, a similar changing of the guard has taken place. The Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) under RS prime minister Milorad Dodik has displaced the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) of war-time leader and war-crimes fugitive Radovan Karadžic with an unrelenting message of Serbia nationalism.

Polarizing figures

The emergence of Silajdžic and Dodik — towering, polarizing figures — as the quasi-natural leaders of their respective communities is a big story.

Silajdžic is now the closest thing to a real leader the Muslim community has had since the death of war-time president Alija Izetbegovic, the man who led Bosnia to independence.
In fact, it is a bigger story than what would be indicated by the formal distribution of power in Bosnia's parliaments at central and entity levels after Sunday's general election.

Assorted nationalists did extremely well while the non-nationalist opposition of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was trounced.

Evil twins

Indeed, Silajdžic and Dodik have become the evil twins of Bosnian politics. Silajdžic, a senior negotiator at the 1995 peace talks that resulted in the Dayton agreement, now wants to scrap the division into largely self-governing entities cemented at Dayton.

Single minded

Dodik, by contrast, wants to continue ruling the RS as a virtual one-party state and to champion "Serb interests," for example through the threat of an independence referendum.

While both politicians are establishment figures, they have managed to capture voters who were deeply disillusioned with the failed policies of the nationalist parties but unwilling to give up on nationalism altogether, for example by voting for the SDP.

There was one surprise on election day, however. The Croat presidential seat went to the SDP candidate.

Playing with numbers

The Croat and Muslim presidency members, while constitutionally leaders of their respective communities, are both directly elected by Federation voters regardless of their ethnicity.

The result suggests that substantial numbers of Muslims must have voted for the SDP's Željko Komšic.

Sad state

Though it is inaccurate to say — as many nationalist Croats have — that this somehow makes Komšic's election illegitimate, it simply exposes the absurdity of the system of governance Bosnia got at Dayton.

The Croat and Muslim presidency members, while constitutionally leaders of their respective communities, are both directly elected by Federation voters regardless of their ethnicity.
A senior SDP lawmaker in the RS parliament, Slobodan Popovic, compared the Dayton set-up to a headstand: You can do it for a while, but eventually you'll have to get back on your feet.

I met with Popovic one night in mid-September at a roadside motel outside Banja Luka. Its tasteful furnishings and almost complete absence of customers might suggest a money-laundering operation, a sight fairly typical for Bosnia and especially the RS.

Dirty tactics

Equally conspicuous were the countless gas stations, often squeezed together along a busy stretch of road, competing for the few customers with exuberant light displays and spiffy cafés whose designs stand in strange contrast to the generally rather less-polished clientele.

Silajdžic's Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina (SBiH) is the political equivalent of these cafés. They don't necessarily trade in illicit goods, but nobody would feign surprise if they did.

Voting trend

In Silajdžic's case the merchandise would involve things like multi-ethnicity and prosperity, neither of which exists in abundance in this country.

He will repeat to anyone who would listen — as I did two weeks ago — that the SBiH's platform is "European" and "neither anti-Serb nor pro-Bosniak," but few Croats or Serbs will be fooled.

The fact is that the pull of EU integration is unlikely to solve Bosnia’s problems. A more robust international policy is still needed.
His main constituents are the Muslims of Bosnia's neglected countryside. He is also supported by a segment of the urban intelligentsia that is disillusioned with the more socially conservative posture of the mainstream SDA, but reluctant to vote for a non-nationalist party.

Aligning allies

The Serbs, in any case, are not buying Silajdžic's goods. They are not interested even in fake multi-ethnicity, let alone the real thing on offer by the SDP.

Instead, they want to preserve the RS at almost any cost — witness Dodik's tough rhetoric and his earlier backtracking on police reform, a precondition for closer ties with the EU.

Disastrous results

The international community's only strategy for the stabilization of Bosnia is to hold out the prospect of European integration.

Silajdžic and Dodik have become the evil twins of Bosnian politics.
The buzz word is that Bosnia has now moved from the Dayton phase to the Brussels phase — from peace implementation to state-building.

Nerzuk Curak, a political scientist at Sarajevo University, thinks this is nonsense. "Bosnia is a state of the international community," a state that is unable to produce progress on its own, he told me on the morning after the elections, whose results he described as "disastrous."

The European Union is refusing to acknowledge that reality, instead claiming that Bosnia is on the right track. But the fact is that the pull of EU integration is unlikely to solve Bosnia's problems. A more robust international policy is still needed.

Big problems

The tranquility of Sarajevo's streets Sunday, and the fact that the vote took place peacefully across the country, should not distract from the anger and disillusionment of Bosnia's voters.

Just as discontent was breaking into the open in Central Europe with riots in Budapest’s streets, Bosnians registered their unhappiness the old-fashioned way: at the ballot box.
They have now elected Silajdžic, who wants to abolish the entity system that is at the heart of the Dayton peace agreement.

And they have elected Dodik, who wants to stop the centralization drive that has allowed Bosnia's government to function better than it did just a few years ago.

It is very likely that the clash of these opposing visions will simply produce more of the same — Bosnia faces policy paralysis, the administration of misery, ethno-national rhetoric — though it might also lead into a real crisis. No amount of positive opinion coming from Brussels will change that fundamental dynamic of Bosnian politics today.


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