Bosnia: Scandals Spice Up Election Race

Political parties are suspected of engineering scandals in a bid to undermine their opponents in forthcoming elections.

Bosnia: Scandals Spice Up Election Race

Political parties are suspected of engineering scandals in a bid to undermine their opponents in forthcoming elections.

Secret weapons' cashes and controversial arms sales are a list of scandals that have rocked the Bosnian political scene over the past few weeks, as the parties jockey for pole position in October's general elections.

Nine thousand 120mm mortar shells, three tons of gunpowder and other ammunition were found last week in three secret caches in the southern town of Mostar - the haul providing ample proof that Bosnia is still full of munitions left behind from the 1992-5 war.

"It is insane to keep so much weapons in a town," said General Maurice Amarger, regional commander of NATO peacekeepers force, SFOR, in south-east Bosnia. "It is irresponsible to let people live with such danger near their apartments."

All three weapons caches were hidden in the basements of three local companies - Mostar Textile Factory, Mostar Tobacco Factory, and UNIS Telekom - in close proximity to residential buildings.

NATO experts said that had this ammunition exploded, nobody within a radius of 500 m would have survived, while the lives of 80 per cent of the population within a 1,000 m radius would have been seriously endangered.

An investigation into this discovery is still ongoing, but initial findings indicate the munitions were hidden by the Bosniak nationalist leadership immediately after the war, in case the Dayton peace accord broke down and led to renewed fighting. Another theory, which has yet to be ruled out, was that the weaponry had been concealed by arms smugglers.

The local police and judiciary have already questioned the managers of the three Mostar companies, but they are not thought to have had much of a role in the affair. Most Bosnians believe it is the work of Bosnia's Muslim wartime leadership, that is the Party for Democratic Action, SDA.

In the October general elections the SDA, the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, SzBiH, and the Social Democrats, SDP, will be the main contenders, which is why many people believe the timing of the discovery of the arms caches was no accident.

In a second alleged scandal, the press last week published numerous stories about a 20 million dollar Pakistani loan taken out by Haris Silajdzic - founder of the SzBiH - while foreign minister. The media claims there's no record of where the money went and who's responsible for paying it back. Silajdzic has denied any wrongdoing.

The loan was issued a decade ago, yet it is only now that the press have started to focus on the affair, triggering speculation that the information was produced as part of someone's pre-election agenda.

In a third scandal, the SDP-dominated federal government has been accused by some media of selling weapons and military equipment, donated by the United Arab Emirates, to Israel. At a time when anti-Israeli sentiment is strong among Bosnian Muslims, the scandal poses a serious threat to the administration.

Federal officials insist the transaction was legal and that an Israeli firm merely acted as an intermediary for the sale of the 31 French reconnaissance armoured vehicles and transporters to Cameroon.

This equipment was mostly outdated and more suitable for deserts than Bosnia's terrain, the deputy defence minister, Ferid Buljubasic, stressed. "We could have either sold the arms or thrown them away," he said. However, there is a widespread feeling that the sale of gifts is unethical without first securing the donor's agreement.

Zlatko Lagumdzija, state foreign minister and SDP president, accused the SDA of being behind the media campaign. Lagumdzija, who was paying an official visit to several Arab states when the scandal broke, said such irresponsible political behaviour could have serious implications for Bosnia's relations with the Arab world.

Analysts say it is no coincidence that these scandals are breaking as political parties register for presidential and general elections.

And while mutual accusations and quarrels between the SDP, SDA and SzBiH have consumed most public attention, deadly pre-election political wars are also tearing apart other parties.

The Bosnian branch of the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, has been particularly badly affected. Earlier this month, it had to re-register without some of its leading officials, who had been disqualified by Bosnia's western governors.

This triggered a new round of infighting as party moderates used their window of opportunity to change its direction. Barisa Colak was elected acting president in place of Ante Jelavic, who had been forced to step down. However, Jelavic and his hardliners are likely to continue running the party from the wings.

A group of HDZ officials, led by the wartime army officer Miro Grabovac Titan, left to form a new party, the Bosnian Croat Alliance, HDU. This development is likely to split the HDZ vote.

Pre-election political games and plots are less intense in the Republika Srpska, RS. The main nationalist party, the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, is preparing a meeting of the main party executive, which will assess the work of the entity's government.

After the last elections in November 2000, the moderate premier Mladen Ivanic, and his Party of Democratic Prosperity, PDP, established a coalition with the SDS, which provided necessary support for Ivanic's government but allowed the SDS to continue dominating RS from behind the scenes.

In the run-up to the new election, the SDS has distanced itself from Ivanic in an attempt to blame him for the entity's dire economic situation.

Polls in local newspapers suggest dismay over the economy will transfer votes in the direction of the former RS prime minister, Milorad Dodik, and his Party of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD.

A week ago, the RS state prosecutor launched an investigation against Dodik for alleged misuse of funds and abuse of power. Dodik publicly accused the SDS and the PDP of orchestrating this campaign as a part of their pre-election game.

Many political analysts believe Dodik did, in fact, grossly abuse his position as premier, but the fact that this investigation coincides with an escalating pre-election campaign naturally makes people suspicious.

Overall, the political parties' focus on petty political games throughout Bosnia threatens the country's prospects of economic recovery. The furore over weapons sales to Israel could have had a serious long-term effect on the country's business relations with Arab countries.

Zdravko Latal is Sarajevo-based correspondent for the Slovenia daily Delo and the Croatia Business magazine. Dragan Jerinic, a Banja Luka-based journalist, also contributed to this report

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