Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: Nationalists Alarm West

The resurgence of parties that thrust Bosnia-Hercegovina into war a decade ago is causing disquiet in western diplomatic circles.
By Sead Numanovic

Three months of post-election maneuvering have confirmed western fears that Bosnia-Herzegovina, BiH, will now be led by nationalist parties which plunged the country into war a decade ago.

Intensive coalition-making and secret deals following the October 5 general election have put the three parties into a ruling position at nearly all levels of the complex BiH administration.

The Party of Democratic Action, SDA, and the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, look set to run the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croat parts of the Federation, respectively. The Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, RS, will be led by the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS.

All three parties have a hard-line pedigree that sends shivers through foreign diplomats. The former have already agreed on premiers for the all-Bosnia state and its two entities. The prime ministers-to-be are now putting together proposals for their respective governments.

The ministers they propose will have to be vetted by High Representative Paddy Ashdown and approved by the various parliaments. All this could take weeks or even months. But it already seems clear these ministers will rule for the next four years.

"Bosnia is moving from bad to worse," said Mark Wheeler, head of the influential think-tank International Crisis Group, ICG.

This outcome was expected after a low voter turnout in October damaged moderate parties such as the Alliance for Change, which had run Bosnia at state level and in the Federation since the 2000 elections.

The new political layout looks ominously similar to the one in 1991 just before the country was swept into three and a half years of war. Western media and the international community in general are now fretting over the prospect of such nationalist-minded politicians tackling crucial economic and diplomatic problems.

Dominance of the nationalists relies to a large extent on the cooperation of two smaller parties, which used to bill themselves as moderates. These are the Party for Bosnia and Hercegovina, SzBiH, in the Federation and the Party of Democratic Progress, PDP, in RS. Post-election cooperation between these five parties already seems to have been achieved.

The five can also expect backing from several smaller parties - the Party of Pensioners and Bosnian Party, BOSS, in the Federation along with parts of the Socialist Party, SPRS, and Serbian Radical Party, SRS, in RS.

This coalition would have an ample majority at state level, as well as in both entities - enough to enact key legislation and even to change the state and entity constitutions. In addition, SDA, HDZ and SZBiH have absolute majorities in all 10 cantons of the Federation. However, the three parties may have difficulties in some cantons over local issues and personal animosities.

Although the three main nationalist parties changed significantly over the past decade, hardly anybody believes these politicians are ready to turn a completely new leaf.

Almost immediately after its establishment, the new Bosnian tripartite presidency - made up of HDZ, SDS and SDA representatives Dragan Covic, Mirko Sarovic and Sulejman Tihic respectively - paid more attention to political rivalries than to economic and social matters. During their first meetings, they clashed over a war reparations lawsuit against Yugoslavia before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This lawsuit is strongly opposed by Banja Luka leaders since it touches upon the core issues of Bosnian Serb participation in the war and the very establishment of RS.

Even disregarding the warlike background of the nationalist leaders, there seems little hope they can set aside their differences and concentrate on building the country. The SDA, for example, advocates a much more centralised state while the SDS would like to preserve RS as a separate, Serb-dominated entity linked as closely as possible to Serbia proper. At the same time, the HDZ still dreams about an exclusive, ethically pure Croat region in BiH.

There are other differences. The SDA and SZBiH strongly support international proposals for future defense, customs and VAT systems to be established at state level. This is rejected by all Bosnian Serb politicians, most loudly by the Party for Democratic Prosperity and its leader, the outgoing RS premier Mladen Ivanic. The PDP is also the party of the current RS premier-designate Dragan Mikerevic.

One seemingly positive sign was the readiness of the SDA - which came out of the October elections as the single strongest political party in BiH - to appoint new and younger people to prominent positions. The former governor of the central Bosnian canton, Adnan Terzic, and the businessman Ahmed Hadzipasic were named as premiers-designate of the new state government and the federal authority, respectively.

However, such rays of light are not enough to lift the gloom for local and international analysts. Many of them, including the IGC's Wheeler, believe the nationalist-run coalition will not be able to implement economic and social reforms. Failure of these efforts would require even more intervention from Ashdown.

Over the past few months of political in-fighting, he has effectively been running the country, making decisions and imposing laws. However, there are fears that further intervention would turn the country into a fully-fledged western protectorate.

"That will not look good in the eyes of Europe, which expects the democratisation and self-sustainability of BiH," said Wheeler. "We will see. Maybe things are not so bad as they seem."

Sead Numanovic is a journalist with the Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz and Gordana Katana is the VOA correspondent in Banja Luka.

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