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Bosnia Prepares For Elections as Ethnic Divisions Remain

October 1, 2010 at 4:28 PM EST
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Special correspondent Kira Kay reports on this weekend's elections in Bosnia where ethnic tensions still run high.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: elections in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia, a country torn apart in a civil war and still divided by ethnic loyalties. Special correspondent Kira Kay has our report.

KIRA KAY: Election season in Bosnia and Herzegovina is in high gear, pumped-up rallies, marches through historic neighborhoods, television debates filling the airwaves.

On October 3, citizens will cast their votes for president on down to county representative. The extremely complex geographic and political system here means there are 8,000 candidates in this country of fewer than four million people.

In the country’s capital, Sarajevo, the activist group Dosta, which means enough, is trying to help voters navigate the forest of candidates and get them engaged with the issues. Voter apathy is a major problem here.

DARKO BRKAN, coordinator, Dosta: So, this is a vote meter tool.

KIRA KAY: Dosta’s coordinator Darko Brkan shows me how his vote meter works.

DARKO BRKAN: Here, you have got 48 questions on different issues, for instance, health care, employment, social — social politics. We have all of these you can answer with I totally agree, up to I totally disagree.

KIRA KAY: Darko’s primary targets are young voters. Almost 80,000 of them are now eligible for the first time, an entire generation that has come of age in the years following this country’s brutal ethnic war.

ALEN ALIC, high school student: I am 18 years old. I am going to vote this year, and I am going to elect because I want a new — a new country.

KIRA KAY: At the Dosta event, we met Alen, born the year the war started and orphaned when his parents’ car hit a land mine. Corruption and education are his issues.

ALEN ALIC: I am going to the high school. Our education is very expensive. We need a lot of money for books, for the Internet and other things. I need somebody who will be able to help me to educate, but not to — to give a lot of money.

KIRA KAY: Alen also says he worries about an increase in ethnically divisive politics.

ALEN ALIC: I don’t care if he’s Kerim or Muhammad or his name. I don’t care that. Or which religion he is, I don’t care. He is my friend. I am playing basketball. And that’s — that’s important.

KIRA KAY: Do you think the politicians understand that?

ALEN ALIC: No. No. They are not understanding it.

KIRA KAY: In many ways, this country is still recovering from the war that tore it apart in the early 1990s. More than 100,000 people were killed. Mass graves are still being discovered today. Buildings remain pockmarked from years of shelling.

The agreement that ended the war in 1995 carved the country into two autonomous ethnic entities, a Serb majority area called Republika Srpska, and a federation predominantly of Bosniak Muslims and Catholic Croats.

Dosta coordinator Darko Brkan says now, 15 years later, there are three distinct societies here.

DARKO BRKAN: The segregation that’s happening in Bosnia after the war is something that everybody’s getting used to. You have got young people, 18 to 20 years, that kind of don’t have friends of another ethnicity, are deprived of all the normal things in life.

KIRA KAY: Once so diverse, it was called the Jerusalem of Europe, Sarajevo today is around 80 percent Muslim. The city of Mostar, famously joined by a symbolic bridge, remains largely segregated on opposite banks of the river.

In some regional schools, students play together during recess. But, when the bell rings, the Croat students make their way to classrooms on the first floor, while their Bosniak Muslim playmates head upstairs for their lessons. They also use different textbooks for language, geography and, perhaps most troubling, history.

And, in the Serb entity capital, Banja Luka, the issue of national identity is potentially most explosive.

SRDJAN PUHALO, social psychologist (through translator): It’s very logical, even expected, that the ethnic identity of the young people here means their love for Republika Srpska is greater than their love for Bosnia.

KIRA KAY: Social psychologist Srdjan Puhalo says these personal divides are being exploited by the region’s politicians.

SRDJAN PUHALO (through translator): Nationalism is a tool which provokes fear in people in Bosnia, and it’s a tool used for manipulation. In the war, no one won. The war goals of the three sides were not achieved, and all of them still feel somewhat endangered.

KIRA KAY: Perhaps no one is capitalizing on this more than the current prime minister of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, who is now running for Serb entity president.

At a rally in the Serb heartland town of Prnjavor, his speech featured the usual political promises of better health care, education, infrastructure. But it was also filled with the rhetoric he has become famous for.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MILORAD DODIK, prime minister, Republika Srpska (through translator): Only in Republika Srpska are we free people. Only here are we on our own land. Republika Srpska forever. The country of Bosnia as long as we have to.

KIRA KAY: Indeed, Dodik has been signaling that Republika Srpska may not remain part of Bosnia much longer. He has threatened a vote on secession, and warns Serbs they will lose their autonomy if the country is pushed to integrate in its bid to join the European Union. Integration, he says, means dominance by the more populous Muslims.

MILORAD DODIK (through translator): You cannot force us to love Sarajevo when it is 96 percent Bosniak Muslim. That cannot be our capital. Our capital is Banja Luka, then Belgrade, and not Sarajevo.

KIRA KAY: It is clear that the rhetoric is seeping down into at least some of the young people here.

DUSKO PENTIC, waiter and campaign volunteer (through translator): It is better here than in the federation, for sure. It’s much better. Today, they are trying to attack us more, and our prime minister doesn’t let them, and that is good.

KIRA KAY: But, in a much smaller venue than Prime Minister Dodik’s rally, there are also signs of change in the political culture of Republika Srpska.

ZDRAVKO KRSMANOVIC, leader, New Socialist Party (through translator): In Bosnia and Herzegovina, fear rules. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, something is coming back that smells of 1991. And, therefore, you have gathered here today.

KIRA KAY: Zdravko Krsmanovic is also Serb ethnicity, but he is gaining a reputation as a uniter. As mayor of the city of Foca, he has reached out to the Muslim community and welcomed back those cleansed during the genocide. And, as part of a long-term strategy of change, he is drafting young people to join his party as candidates.

IVANA SANIC, candidate, New Socialist Party (through translator): Good evening, good people. I am glad you came in such big numbers, but I am even more glad to see so many of my generation. And I say to you, ciao.

KIRA KAY: Ivana Sanic is only 22 and still finishing university. But she’s also running for a position in Republika Srpska’s Parliament.

IVANA SANIC (through translator): These past years were very difficult. And people have started to understand that the next four years will be even worse if something is not changed. The time has come for the professional and educated people to deal with politics in this country and to open it towards the European Union.

KIRA KAY: I sat down with Ivana and a few of her friends. Their Serb identity isn’t as important as other issues, they tell me.

What needs to change? What’s wrong with the leadership right now in Republika Srpska?

IVANA SANIC (through translator): Unfortunately, young people are only considered by the politicians during election time. And during the four years of their term, they do nothing for them. A large number of my educated friends have had to leave the country because they simply couldn’t find a job.

KIRA KAY: Ognen (ph) is finishing up school and worries he wont get a job. Fifty-eight percent of Bosnia’s young adults are unemployed. Boris (ph) says he thinks the Serbs and the Muslim-Croat Federation should draw closer together.

Economics major Andrea is sober about the political battles that remain ahead.

ANDREA TESIC, University Student (through translator): I’m not sure that we can achieve something in a short time. If we want to make some real, deep change, we need to start from the beginning. I believe that, during my lifetime, changes will happen. Whether that will be in 10 or 20 years, I still cannot say for sure.

KIRA KAY: Srdjan Puhalo says time is on the young activists’ side.

SRDJAN PUHALO (through translator): You can’t stop the flow of information. Today, we have Internet. We have cable TV and thousands of other ways. So, no matter how hard you try to hide them in a cocoon, the information still gets through to the young people. And, on the other hand, the war is slowly being forgotten, and we are turning more to everyday life.

(SINGING)

KIRA KAY: But a few days before the election, Serb candidate Milorad Dodik and his nationalist party are ahead in the polls.

The front-runner for Bosniak Muslim president continues to call for a more centralized state, even if against Serb wishes. Unless there’s an upset, it appears it will be at least another election cycle before change comes to Bosnia.