Europe

Ethnic rifts overshadow Bosnia election

Foca, southeastern Bosnia
Image caption Bosnians vote on Sunday in elections seen as crucial for the former Yugoslav republic

It nestles in a lush valley in southeastern Bosnia, a few streets winding up the surrounding hills to the houses dotted above. But the serene landscape around Foca belies the town's devastating past.

This was where some of the worst ethnic cleansing of Muslims - or Bosniaks - took place by Bosnian Serbs during the war of the 1990s. The town was renamed "Srbinje", or "Place of the Serbs". The central sports hall was transformed into a rape camp.

But today, Foca is gaining a reputation for reconciliation and progressive politics.

Its mayor, Zdravko Krsmanovic, has been in charge for six years and is now running for government in Sunday's election. He has encouraged Bosniaks to return to Foca, rebuilding many of the mosques destroyed during the war.

Voice of tolerance

Among Bosnian politicians, he is a rare voice - non-nationalistic and vehemently opposed to the ethnic divisions that still blight Bosnia today.

Zdravko wanders through the main street of Foca, stopping to talk to several residents.

"Foca should become an example for the whole of Bosnia: to expel the hatred and fear," he tells me. "My mission is to promote peace, dialogue, compromise and tolerance."

Bosnia is a young state," he says, "and we can't allow this child to be killed before it can really live. The nationalists want to kill this child but if Bosnia is divided, it will only lead to new wars."

But nationalism wins votes here.

Foca is part of the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska: one of two semi-autonomous entities which, along with the Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina, makes up the country's post-war political structure.

Mistrust of 'the other'

The Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has frequently called for his region to secede from Bosnia. In an interview earlier this year, he told me Bosnia was a "virtual, pointless country".

And he is way ahead in the pre-election polls: his SNSD party is likely to strengthen its hold on power.

Zdravko's liberal message provokes a mixed reaction in Foca.

"We all live in one country and we have to work together," says Ana, a young businesswoman.

But a taxi driver, Vaso, is against the mayor who, he believes, does not care for Serbs. "He just tries to support the Muslims to get their votes," he says.

"Muslims are actually all Serbs. They just converted a few hundred years ago. Bosnia has always been a Serb land - we now have an autonomous Republika Srpska, but I would like Bosnia to be Serb again."

That division - that mistrust of "the other" - is, many believe, driven by politicians such as Milorad Dodik and the Bosniak member of the country's presidency, Haris Silajdzic, who has labelled Republika Srpska a "genocidal creation".

Political stalemate

Under Bosnia's extraordinarily complex political system, voters elect MPs to their own entity governments - in other words, a Republika Srpska resident does not choose members of the entity parliament of the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and vice versa.

The result is that politicians focus on shoring up their own core ethnic vote.

And if that is difficult to grasp, just consider the figures: in Bosnia's 14 parliaments, there are five presidents, 13 prime ministers and 700 MPs - all for a population of just four million.

The result is stalemate, with the different political parties failing to agree on any meaningful reform. And Bosnia is left in prolonged political crisis, far from its goal of European Union and Nato membership.

"If we don't change the current system, what we'll have in a generation is people who socialise in isolation from other ethnic groups, so Bosnia might lose its meaning," warns political analyst Asim Mujkic.

"Inflammatory speech is rising and I think these elections are bringing the country more and more towards instability and unrest," he says. "Political candidates are pointed towards radicalism.. If you start talking about multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism, you'll end up with two hundred votes."

Country at crossroads

Image caption Bosnian soldiers are joining Nato forces in Afghanistan

There are however some small signs of progress. The state parliament has just voted to send 45 soldiers to serve in Afghanistan this month: a step towards Bosnia joining Nato.

I join them during their final training, a couple of hours' drive from Sarajevo. They simulate vehicle checks in which they find a car bomb and shoot the attacker.

In the neighbouring forest, a dozen soldiers climb through the brambles before one comes under simulated fire: they huddle around him, applying emergency first aid.

"Finally we can give somebody help, not just be a country receiving help and for us that is very important moment," says the commander, his name withheld for security reasons.

"I'm proud that this unit is mixed with all nations in our country. The military is going towards Nato: just the political part has to follow."

So as voters prepare to cast their ballots, Bosnia stands at a crossroads.

Either the past is finally laid to rest, and the country is shaken out of its lethargy, or nationalist divisions deepen and the dream of European integration slips further from Bosnia's grasp.

Politicians fomented conflict here in the 1990s. Fighting is unlikely to return but, 15 years on, the fear of a failed state in this corner of Europe is still real.

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