Old Wounds Emerge as Bosnia Elections Loom

On Sunday, Oct. 1, more than 2.7 million Bosnian citizens are expected to vote in the country's general elections and decide on a path for the future of Bosnia.

Many analysts here believe that Bosnia's fragile unity and peace is at stake, and some fret about old nationalistic divisions that have resurfaced.

Bosnia is made up of three different groups: Muslims (Islamized Slavs during Ottoman occupation), Serbs (orthodox Christians) and Croats (Catholics).

Bosnia's population of about 4 million was divided into a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb Republic under the 1995 Dayton peace accords.

The main problem for this young country that came out of a brutal civil war 11 years ago is that two out of three communities do not believe in it. The Serbs believe their real capital is Belgrade, not Sarajevo. The Croats think of Croatia as their real motherland. The Muslims are by and large in favor of a strong centralized state, because they are the more numerous (45 percent of the total population).

The Dayton peace accord, signed in November 1995, at the Wright-Paterson Air Base in Ohio, ended the civil war in Bosnia by granting an autonomous entity to the Serbs (called the Serb Republic) and three autonomous cantons to the Croats, within a Muslim-Croat federation. This makes Bosnia's constitution among the most complicated in the world.

Instead of dealing with economic and social problems, during this election local politicians on all sides chose to use nationalistic rhetoric to gain the most votes within their community. Milorad Dodik, a prime minister of the Serb entity, said on Sept.15 that Bosnian Serbs did not see their long-term future in Bosnia. Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim war time prime minister, said the borders of the Serb entity should be abolished, because they were " the product of genocide." Many international observers are dismayed that the Dodik and Silajdzic parties are the favorites in the polls.

"The campaign has been full of hate," says Jakob Finci, a head of a small Jewish community in Bosnia, who survived the turbulent years of war and has managed to remain impartial, in a phone interview. "It shows that our ultra-complicated institutions cannot work by themselves and that we need to keep our Western procounsul." Since Dayton, the real ruler of Bosnia is the High Representative of the International Community, who ensures no one jeopardizes the peace or the unity of the country. Currently, that role is held by German diplomat Christian Swartz-Schilling.

To deter any attempt of the war mongers, 6,000 European troops are still based in Bosnia, with 111 American officers, who are mostly in intelligence.

Many predict that this nationalistic rhetoric will disappear as soon as elections are over. But this nasty campaign showed the Western powers that there is still a lot of work ahead to build a strong unitary state. Twice, in 1992 and 1995, the foreign powers that count in the Balkans (the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy) decided that a multiethnic Bosnia should exist, even as they accepted the disappearance of a larger, multiethnic Yugoslavia.