Bosnian voters lose faith in nationalists

By Nick Thorpe, The Guardian, Monday 13 November 2000

For the first time since the end of the war in Bosnia five years ago, parties not based on ethnic lines look set to win majorities in two of the country's three parliaments following elections this weekend.

The need for jobs pushed ethnic issues far down the agenda in Saturday's general election.

Bosnia remains split into two entities—the Federation, where most of the Muslim and Croat population live, and the Serbian Republic. It also has a national government which has a say across both entities.

In the central parliament, social democrats, conservatives and liberal parties from both entities look set to form a majority coalition without the nationalists.

In the Federation, the Social Democratic party, led by a 46-year-old computer science professor, Zlatko Lagumdzija, looks set to win a majority. In the Serb-controlled half, the nationalist Serbian Democratic party (SDS) expects to win but may not have enough seats to rule alone. That should pave the way for Mladen Ivanic's Party of Democratic Progress (PDP) and the prime minister Milorad Dodik's Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) to share power with them.

Full results of the elections should become clear once the votes of up to 1m refugees and displaced persons are counted.

The Dayton peace accords which brought the war to an end in December 1995 are full of contradictions, allowing considerable power to be held by the two entities, but also the possibility of bolstering the institutions of the central state.

Overseeing the rebuilding of Bosnia is the international high representative, the Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch, who risks appeasing nationalists and alienating progressive forces by not doing enough to build central institutions.

In Sarajevo yesterday, Mr Petritsch announced the imposition of six laws to strengthen the central state. The laws include the establishment of a state court with jurisdiction in both halves of the country, and a law on pensions—both of which had been stalled by nationalists in the outgoing parliament.

Each ethnic group now believes it has lost the war: the Serbs because they failed to prevent the independence of Bosnia from Yugoslavia; the Bosnyaks—the Bosnian Muslims, the largest ethnic group—because of the continued existence of a Serbian republic created by the murder and expulsion of non-Serbs; and the Croats because they feel outnumbered and unheard.

But with unemployment running at over 40% in both halves of the country, and the continued exodus of young people, job creation has become the central platform of all parties, even nationalists.

Outside a polling station near the centre of the Serbian entity's capital, Banja Luka, people said that the economy had dictated who they had voted for. “To help our children get jobs, and to live in the prosperity we used to have before the war,” said one middle-aged woman. She and her husband had split their votes between the economically conservative PDP and the more leftwing SNSD.

“Identity is less and less important here by the day,” said Dragana Stoisavljevic, a 33-year-old secretary and interpreter. “People have realised that what they need is a job, and a place on the road to European integration.”

Few are willing to predict how that future might be brought about. As Zeljko Kopanja, editor of the Banja Luka weekly, Nezavisne Novine, says: “The truth is always buried deep within the Bosnia mountains.”

Mr Kopanja describes the likely winners in the Serbian republic, the SDS, as a terrorist group which should be banned—a feeling shared by the US ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke. Mr Kopanja's own newspaper's investigation into Serb war crimes led to a car bomb attack on him in October last year in which he lost both his legs.

Mr Kopanja views the election as an important milestone in turning Bosnia and its neighbours into normal countries again and placing them “on the reserve bench of the European Union”.