Bosnia: Youthful Politicians Call for Change

New, youthful party emerging to challenge Bosnia's old political order.

Bosnia: Youthful Politicians Call for Change

New, youthful party emerging to challenge Bosnia's old political order.

A youthful band of political hopefuls is striving to win power from old, corrupt and incompetent politicians who have taken Bosnia through three-and-a-half years of war and left the country floundering in economic chaos.

A new party now being put together by Milan Bastinac, 25, and Davor Ilic, 24, is hoping to win seats in the country's next general elections in October. Both are founders of the local branch of Euro26 - an NGO designed to unite European youth through such offerings as discounted train fares and cultural exchange programmes.

Bastinac, a Serb and Ilic, half Serb and half Muslim, are pushing full-steam ahead to register their party, as yet unnamed, by the end of January, to select committee leaders by the spring and to kick their campaign into high gear this summer.

Their objective will be to capture seats in the all-Bosnia state parliament as well as in the assemblies representing the country's two halves - the Bosniak

-Croat Federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, RS.

Bastinac and Ilic will seek to convince people of all ages that they can bring a wind of change to this politically-stale, corruption-ridden country. "It's time for us to get rid of these corrupt leaders who keep making things worse," said Ilic.

To date, Bastinac and Ilic have launched anti-drug and safe sex campaigns in

the RS and applied for a 23,000 US dollar grant from the American government to provide computers for schools in the small town of Laktasi and in the capital of Sarajevo.

They said they tried to launch a programme in the Federation city of Zenica to help local farmers, but politicians sabotaged their efforts. "Politicians here don't like progress," said Stela Vasic, 23, a member of Euro26 from predominantly Muslim Zenica. "We have to open people's eyes and to create opportunities."

Bastinac and Ilic's campaign will seek to convince everyone from high school graduates to pensioners that they offer a sound alternative to the nationalist leftovers and party hacks who, they contend, continue to misdirect the country.

Many believe a youth party might do well in a country where both nationalist and moderate leaders in most cases come from the same old pre-war Communist Party and where switching parties has become a national sport. Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish a moderate politician from a nationalist, a moderate party from a hard line one.

Bastinac and Ilic aspire to a free-market economy, privatisation, an independent media and a political system tolerant of nationalities and minorities.

"We want to establish a system that would protect everyone's rights and

break down our national differences," Bastinac said. Like tens of thousands of other young Bosnians, he was a soldier during the war - serving in the RS army. He said he now feels no hostility to other ethnic groups.

Bastinac and Ilic believe their policies are the only way to break away from the still-prevailing ideological and nationalist attitudes which are pushing the country ever deeper into an abyss.

The country is reeling from 40 per cent unemployment, endemic corruption and pervasive disillusionment. Local NGOs estimate that some 62 per cent of Bosnia's youth between the ages of 18 and 25 want to leave the country. Young and old alike see politicians as corrupt and self-serving.

Ilic says the biggest problem is to convince people they have power to control their destinies. Strolling down the grey pedestrian walkway in Banja Luka, the RS capital, Ilic points to the cafes full of unemployed people sitting for hours over a single cup of coffee. "We have to convince these people that they deserve more and can get more if they are willing to become involved," he said.

Bastinac and Ilic, lifelong friends who now both study in Vienna, are hoping

that their own commitment to return to Bosnia after their studies will convince others to stay and to work for change.

Bastinac, a political science major, is scheduled to finish studies this summer, in time to run for the fall election. Ilic said he would work hard for the campaign although he is planning to spend the next few years in Austria to finish his dentistry studies before entering politics full-time.

To keep up the momentum, the two return regularly from Vienna for meetings with followers in Banja Luka and Sarajevo. Dina Masnik, 25, a Bosniak from Sarajevo, leads the group's efforts in the Bosnian capital, where she tries to spread the message through informal meetings in coffee bars.

"At first it was difficult for all of us to put differences behind us and work together," she said. "Now we know we have no choice but to improve relations and change the system."

Bastinac and Ilic are also trying to build support within the international community. Although most NGOs and foreign governments do not lend explicit support to any particular political group, the pair seem to have had some success gaining their attention.

"Members of this group, through their own efforts and initiative, have shown their potential to contribute to a secure, stable and prosperous future for all the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an integral part of Europe," said an American embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said Washington has so far confined itself to offering advice.

Ilic said his group has also received offers of assistance and guidance from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the US National Democratic Institute, NDI, both of which are working to get young people more involved in politics.

Bastinac and Ilic must gain support from older people if they are to win seats in the assemblies. With only about five per cent of eligible young people voting in elections and some 35-40 parties operating in each entity, they need to cast a wide net to win the 7,000-plus ballots required to secure just one seat in either assembly.

Money will also be difficult. Some analysts estimate that it takes at least

one million German marks (500,000 euros) to run a campaign in Bosnia.

Bastinac and Ilic have very little money but said several companies and individuals have agreed to back them with offers of free printing and advertising space.

The pair together with their followers refuse to let the obstacles dismay

them. "Things here are so awful and they are getting worse," Ilic said. "If we

don't act now I'm afraid to see what will happen to this place."

Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance journalist working from Banja Luka.

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