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Bosnia Votes for Future of Divided Nation

Bakir Izetbegovic, a presidential candidate of SDA (Party of Democratic Action), casts his vote at polling station in Sarajevo, Bosnia, 03 Oct 2010

Bakir Izetbegovic, a presidential candidate of SDA (Party of Democratic Action), casts his vote at polling station in Sarajevo, Bosnia, 03 Oct 2010

Voters in Bosnia-Herzegovina have begun casting ballots in general elections that are seen as crucial for the future of the fractured nation where politicians seek membership in the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). There are international concerns the country will fall apart along ethnic lines.

Almost 15 years after Bosnia's ethnic war ended, Muslims, Croats and Serbs have begun voting in elections that at least some hope will increase cooperation in the fractured nation.

Muja Avdic, a Muslim, says he regrets that Bosnia remains divided along ethnic lines.

He says the war is over but the people of Bosnia do not see any improvement. He says the different nationalities of Bosnia are "not even able to construct a highway while that is of life importance." This way, Avdic adds, "the economy will never improve." And it's only because in his words "politicians want to press people with their opinions and personal interests. The country is not functioning."

Underscoring the complexity of the state are several ballot decisions. Voters will choose a presidency, with one representative for each of the country's three nationalities, and a central parliament.

Additionally, voters are asked to choose assemblies for Bosnia's two entities, known as the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serbs' Republika Srpska. In Republic Srpska people also elect a president while in the Muslim-Croat Federation voters choose district parliaments.

The international community, which monitors Sunday's vote, has urged politicians and voters to bring new leadership that will work to strengthen central institutions, a key condition for Bosnia to join the European Union.

But the popular prime minister of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik, who is running for president, does not want to give up autonomy to a national government and even favors full independence for his Serb entity.

Mr. Dodik tells a campaign rally that his government supports the text of the U.S. brokered Dayton peace agreement that ended the Bosnian war, sparked by the break up of Yugoslavia, but not in the way Muslims want. He says Muslims use it to, in his words, "break Republika Srpska." Mr. Dodik makes clear he sees no long-term future for Bosnia. He denies seeking conflicts but the prime minister admits that his political program says: "The Serbian Republic always, but Bosnia-Herzegovina as long as necessary."

However EU and U.S. leaders point out that cooperation between the different ethnic communities is crucial, also to overcome a major economic crisis in the country, where statistics show over 40 percent of people are unemployed.

Bosnia's more than three million voters can decide the future of their former Yugoslav republic at over 5,000 polling stations.

First official results were expected by midnight local time.

Sunday's elections are monitored by some 1,100 observers, including nearly 500 international officials.