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

Bosniaks Hold Key To Multi-Ethnic Bosnia

The Bosniaks defended the multi-ethnic principle in war, but may destroy it with their votes in peacetime.
By Senad Pecanin

Municipal elections this weekend will indicate whether Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats are ready to turn their backs on nationalist parties and vote for a truly multi-ethnic state.


According to some pre-election surveys, there's a chance they will. But it's more likely that the nationalist noose - with which Bosniak, Serb and Croat oligarchies hold their supporters together - will not be loosened enough to oust those in power.


The elections will depend predominantly on the votes of the majority Bosniaks. Yet their long-term support of the ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA), a populist, religious and nationalist party, compromised by various criminal activities, is hardly an encouragement for other communities to change their nationalist sympathies.


Alija Izetbegovic, the charismatic Chairman of Bosnia's Tripartite Presidency and leader of the SDA, has undeniable authority amongst Bosniaks. But his Islamic tendencies are unacceptable to the vast majority of Bosnian Serbs and Croats.


A radical change of power, however, is crucial for the healthy future of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as the country's bleak state of affairs illustrates.


Five years after the Dayton Peace Agreement and the provision of five billion dollars of Western aid, refugees are returning painfully slowly to their homes. The poverty of the majority of the population is only too visible.


The work of state institutions and other official bodies is paralysed by bureaucracy and political blockages, with the result that the High Representative of the international community - the country's most powerful international mediator - has made more important rulings in the past two years than the state and entity parliaments together.


The privatisation process is still not up and running. So far it's perceived as benefiting only the new elite of post-war profiteers.


The corruption of the judiciary and state administrative bodies has allowed crime and smuggling to flourish. Foreign investors avoid the country like a plague, though with an unemployment rate of 56 per cent, investment is desperately needed.


No wonder there is a widespread feeling of hopelessness in all sectors of society. In front of Western embassies, long lines of young professionals queuing for visas to leave the country, are a powerful illustration of people's disillusionment with progress.


There are glimmers of hope that more democratic opposition parties may eventually govern the country. But it's sure to be an uphill struggle.


Izetbegovic's party, for example, dominates the leadership of the religious organisation, the Islamic Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina, exploiting it to preach politics.


In the run-up to the elections, imams have routinely launched propaganda tirades against Izetbegovic's most serious rival, Zlatko Lagumdzija's Social Democratic Party (SDP), portraying it as atheist, communist and anti-Islamic. The Islamic obligation, they say, is to vote for Izetbegovic.


The religious card is not the only advantage the SDA has over its rivals. Izetbegovic has enormous financial means at his disposal, thanks to money from Islamic supporters like Saudi Arabia. The SDA, as the ruling party, also dips into the budgets of big public entities under its control and is exerts influence over important media outlets.


Recent events - the murder of a returning Bosniak refugee in Prijedor and other bomb attacks against Bosniaks in the east of the country - have given Izetbegovic leeway to portray himself as the true defender of his nation.


That said, Izetbegovic is not unassailable, and in recent months his reputation has taken several blows, including the involvement of his powerful son Bakir in corruption and mafia-related scandals.


Another setback was the withdrawal earlier this year of the charismatic Muslim politician Haris Silajdzic from the ruling coalition. Silajdzic's Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina - still nationalist-oriented, but more moderate than the SDA - is widely expected to get at least 20 per cent of the vote.


And Lagumdzija's SDP - possibly the only truly multi-ethnic party contesting the elections - also has a considerable chance of success, according to pre-election polls.


In addition to acquiring support in Bosniak areas, it has managed to reach further into previous no-win areas - in Serb-ruled Republika Srpska and Croat-ruled parts of the Federation - than Izetbegovic's party.


The SDP has several things going for it: a young, educated leader whose face is turned firmly towards the West, and a political climate that has seen recent electoral victories for several European Social Democratic parties, including neighbouring Croatia.


Since the death of Croatian nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman, and the Hague Tribunal's indictment of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, Lagumdzija has been urging their wartime countpart Izetbegovic to step down.


Despite the presence of a moderate leader in Republika Srpska and the diminishing influence of Bosnian Croat extremists, the prospects for a truly multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina are firmly in the hands of the Bosniak majority.


The Bosniaks defended the multi-ethnic principle in war, but ironically may end up destroying it with their votes in peacetime.


Senad Pecanin is the editor of the independent magazine Dani, in Sarajevo.


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