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Ethnically divided Bosnia goes to the polls

Bosnians vote on Sunday in an election that seems set to entrench their country's ethnic divisions and could further delay reforms needed to secure its European future.

world Updated: Oct 01, 2010 08:05 IST

Bosnians vote on Sunday in an election that seems set to entrench their country's ethnic divisions and could further delay reforms needed to secure its European future.

Almost 15 years after the 1992-1995 inter-ethnic war, which ended with Bosnia being split into a Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation under weak central institutions, the campaign was still dominated by nationalist rhetoric.

In the Serb-run Republika Srpska (RS) presidential hopeful Milorad Dodik has stepped up his threats to opt for independence if the entity's autonomy has to be reduced by political reforms required by the international community.

"It would be best for Bosnia if we separated amicably" from each other, Dodik, the outgoing RS prime minister, said more than once.

On the other side, the incumbent Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Haris Silajdzic, has lashed out at Bosnian Serbs, accusing them of "preventing progress" towards Europe.

Silajdzic, a fierce opponent of possible RS secession, seeks re-election on Sunday. He stands against Bakir Izetbegovic, a more moderate politician who advocates a dialogue with Bosnian Serbs instead of confrontation.

Izetbegovic is the son of Muslim wartime leader Alija Izetbegovic, a symbolic figure for Bosnia's Muslim community who led the country to independence from former Yugoslavia in 1992.

The divisions along ethnic lines have proved a key obstacle to Bosnia's further rapprochement with the European Union. The international community has been trying to force both entities to agree political reforms, notably a centralisation of government, but they have been blocked since the 2006 polls.

Analysts believe this weekend's vote will produce no shake-ups and worry that a breakdown is on the cards.

"Continued worsening of relations among Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Croat and Serb leaders, compounded by a fiscal meltdown after the 2010 elections, could transform public dissatisfaction into ethnic tensions and violence," the International Crisis Group think tank warned in its latest study on Bosnia.

"Something radical should happen" in order for things to change, political analyst Tanja Topic said.

"The only way out from this stalemate could be a more resolute involvement of the international community or if a new party enters the government," she said.

However, analyst Haris Abaspahic pointed to a growing "fatigue of the international community regarding Bosnia."

The EU's top envoy to Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, recently urged the country's leaders to leave the "blind alley" they have marched down "by accident or by design".

He said Bosnian Serb secession would be "a posthumous triumph" for the late Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and a success for Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader currently on trial for war crimes and genocide in UN tribunal in The Hague.

The 1992-95 inter-ethnic war sparked by the break-up of Yugoslavia left some 100,000 dead and more than two million people displaced -- almost half of the pre-war population.

It ended with the internationally-brokered Dayton agreement that defined the current political setup.

On Sunday Bosnia's 3.1 million voters will elect the central parliament and the members of the collective presidency -- one representative for each of the nationalities -- as well as deputies for their two entities' respective parliaments.

In the RS voters will also elect a president, while some 1.9 eligible voters in the Muslim-Croat Federation will choose regional assemblies.