The divided country of Bosnia-Herzegovina, part of the former Yugoslavia, on October 1 will have its first parliamentary and presidential election in four years. Analysts are not optimistic that the vote will hasten moves towards national unity and ethnic reconciliation.
Nationalist sentiment is on the rise in Bosnia as parties linked to three often feuding ethnic groups campaign for votes. Bruce Hitchner, a Tufts University professor involved in promoting ethnic cooperation, describes the campaign as ugly but not surprising. Bosnian Muslims, the largest ethnic group, are increasingly vocal in calling for the dismantlement of the Bosnian Serb entity created by the Dayton accord that ended a catastrophic civil war in 1995.
Some Bosnian Serb politicians are threatening to hold a referendum on joining with Serbia, a move that would be in violation of Dayton. Hitchner says Bosnian politicians should move cautiously in demanding changes to the Dayton accord.
"To abandon it (Dayton) wholesale and to argue that overnight we have to completely write it away or say that that is the only way to have further discussions, I think runs in the face of ten years of progress. And any successful process is going to have to involve compromise on the part of all sides," he said.
Stability in Bosnia is provided by NATO and European Union peacekeepers. Earlier this year it appeared that Bosnia was making progress as preliminary negotiations aimed at joining the European Union got underway and rival politicians endorsed an outline plan for constitutional reform and a strengthened central government. However, the reform package narrowly failed to win parliamentary approval.
Ranko Bakic, a Bosnian Serb who heads a new multi-ethnic party, says fear is the biggest problem confronting Bosnia. Speaking at Washington's Wilson Center Thursday, Bakic says the country's politicians have failed. "We don't have a self-sustaining economy. We have a high level of crime and corruption. We've become one of the most impoverished nations in the region," he said.
Bruce Hitchner of Tufts University says the danger is that in both the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serbian entity the election could harden nationalist sentiment and make compromise harder to achieve. "I worry less about renewed violence than such a hardening of political positions that you could have a political stalemate that leads to disintegration of even the existing political functionality," he said.
The contentious pre-election posturing in Bosnia is worrying but not yet alarming diplomats active in promoting stability in the Balkans. Significant change has recently occurred in the region as neighboring Montenegro has ended its association with Serbia and become an independent state. Kosovo, the disputed southern Serbian province, appears headed towards some resolution of its future status by the end of this year. Its 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority expect independence, a status vehemently opposed by the Serbian minority and the government in Belgrade.