Elections in Bosnia should re-legitimize a broken system

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina (AP) — Bosnia’s general elections are expected to be about fighting rampant corruption and helping the country’s struggling economy. But at a time when Russia has strong pressure to reignite conflict in the tiny Balkan nation, Sunday’s vote looks like an easy test for longtime nationalists who have ignored the needs of the people.

Voters choose the three members of the shared Bosnian presidency, deputies of parliament at the state, entity and regional levels, and the president of the Serb-led part of the country. Longtime Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik, who is running for the latter post, has used the election campaign to champion a secessionist agenda and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“(Bosnian Serbs) will gradually sever ties with the arrogant (European Union) bureaucracy in Brussels… (and) cooperate with leaders who respect international law, like Vladimir Putin,” Dodik said, who traveled to Moscow this month to provide security for the Russian leader. explicit endorsement, said at a massively attended campaign rally this week. “When we separate (from the rest of Bosnia), we will take our 49% of the territory with us.”

Bosnia has never fully recovered from its 1992-95 inter-ethnic war, which claimed nearly 100,000 lives, which began when Serbs, who made up about a third of the population, attempted to dismember and dismember it. to unite the territories they claimed with neighboring territories. Serbia. In the last eight years alone, it is estimated that nearly half a million people have emigrated due to a lack of jobs, poor public services and rampant corruption.

A national opinion poll published last week on public perception of the elections indicated that more than 40% of Bosnians believed that their country’s electoral system failed to truly reflect the will of the citizens. Nearly 10% of respondents to the survey commissioned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said they had been pressured by family members, while 6.8% said they had been threatened with losing their job if they did not vote for a party or a candidate.

As a result, the country’s political quagmire is certain to persist beyond the election, and Russia “will not lack partners to work with,” said Kurt Bassuener of the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based think tank.

A US-brokered peace deal ended the war in Bosnia by dividing the country into two self-governing entities – one led by Orthodox Serbs and the other shared by Bosnian Muslims, who represent more than half of the country’s 3.3 million inhabitants, and one Catholic Croat.

The two entities enjoy wide autonomy but are bound by common national institutions, and all country-wide actions require the consensus of the three ethnic groups.

The post-war sectarian system of governance perpetuates a poisonous political climate that allows leaders to enrich their cronies and leaves pragmatic, reform-minded Bosnians with little incentive to vote.

In the immediate post-war period, the international community kept Bosnia on the path to reform, pressuring its leaders to accept painful compromises in exchange for financial and other support.

But as international attention shifted to other global crises more than a decade ago, Bosnia has been mostly left on its own. The resulting vacuum has created space for the growing influence of Russia, China and Turkey. It has also allowed sectarian political elites to channel popular resentments against imaginary enemies to divert attention from real problems, including the mismanagement of public resources and the waste of public funds.

Tribal politicians of all ethnicities have largely abandoned the reforms needed to propel Bosnia towards promised European Union and NATO membership, favoring a patronage approach to governance that helps them retain power and wealth. .

“The West has been very complacent; he was overconfident that the European Union is the only game in town,” Bassuener said. “Because we don’t really know what we want other than we just don’t want the Balkans to be a problem (,)…the Russian agenda is gaining ground here even if it’s losing ground in Ukraine.”

Earlier this year, the United States and Britain sanctioned Dodik, accusing him of corrupt activities that threaten to destabilize the region. The United States alleged that the Bosnian Serb leader used his position to accumulate wealth through bribery and bribery.

In the upcoming elections, the traditional ruling class is being challenged by parties which, despite ideological differences and sometimes opposing agendas, share a campaign promise to eradicate nationalist patronage networks and punish acts of corruption within their ranks.

To entice voters and avoid uncomfortable questions about their track record in power, Bosnian and Croat nationalists also adopted Dodik’s strategy, portraying political opponents from their own ethnic group as traitors.

In the election campaign, the main Bosnian leader, Bakir Izetbegovic, who is running for the Bosnian seat for the joint presidency against a candidate supported by an ideologically diverse alliance of 11 Bosnian and multi-ethnic parties, has repeatedly portrayed his nationalist party, the SDA , as the only real bulwark against secessionism.

At a pre-election rally last week, his wife, Sebija Izetbegovic, a candidate for legislative office, claimed that Bosnian opponents of their party would lead the country’s Muslims “to be massacred again, interned in concentration and thrown into mass graves” by their fellow Serbs and Croats.

The Bosnian Croat minority nationalist party, HDZ, has in turn threatened to demand the creation of an exclusively Croat ethnic region if Borjana Kristo, its candidate for the Croatian seat for the tripartite presidency, loses to a party nominally not nationalist. rival.

Such a jockey has created a cycle in which “elections are a periodic recalibration of the oligarchy” because the West has “effectively given up on the country being anything other than tribal.”

Bassuener insisted that “the West has a potential constituency in Bosnia”, as evidenced by the rate of exodus from the country and low voter turnout.

But in the absence of “an overhaul and recalibration of (its) policy” of Western Balkan integration, which seems elusive amid a rightward shift in parts of Europe, most recently in Italy, the West could be “caught off guard” in Bosnia, he warned.

About Eleanor Blackburn

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