A house divided: Bosnia after the elections

About the author
Nicholas Walton is BBC correspondent in Sarajevo, Bosnia. He was formerly BBC Warsaw correspondent and has reported from a number of international locations including Sierra Leone, Turkey, Russia and the US.

There could be few more striking illustrations of the difference between the old guard of Bosnian politics and the new generation. In the Stranka Demokratske Akcije (Party of Democratic Action / SDA) headquarters on Sarajevo's Mehmeda Spahe, Sulejman Tihic posed for a photo with Amila Karacic in front of a party flag and a portrait of the venerated wartime leader, Alija Izetbegovic.

It was 1 October 2006, the day of Bosnia-Hercegovina's general election, and Tihic was on the verge of losing his office as the Muslim member of the country's tripartite presidency. His unsmiling image adorned posters across Sarajevo and beyond: yet another of the ubiquitous frowning, bald politicians from every political party who were appealing for the electorate's support.

The contrast with the smiling, photogenic 20-year-old Karacic - standing for a far more modest office - was striking, but it also helps explain why her party sought to make good use of her.

And the difference is more than symbolic. Over coffee in the small square in front of Sarajevo's Catholic cathedral, Amila Karacic came across as both genuinely excited about the political world and conscious of the real-life problems Bosnian voters wanted their representatives to address. Suleiman Tihic, facing questions from a gaggle of foreign journalists, seemed far less comfortable. He mumbled answers to their questions in Bosnian, and seemed most fluent when talking about arcane clauses in the constitution.

In the election campaign, youth groups in Bosnia had been vociferous with demands to take their concerns (a 70% unemployment rate for a start) more seriously. The youth movement Dosta (Enough), fuelled by disillusion with politicians' power-games, has made its symbol of a black hand raised in protest a recognised brand on T-shirts and walls across Sarajevo.

The election results confirm that Tihic's comments are not what Bosnians - or at least the approximately 43% of those who chose to vote - are looking for. Two old-school politicians in the Muslim-Croat Federation component of the tripartite presidency (Croat nationalist Ivo Miro Jovic and Tihic himself) have lost their places, to Haris Silajdzic and Zeljko Komsic respectively. Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb voters have elected a Serb nationalist, Nebojsa Radmanovic, to represent them.

Money for no hope

Bosnia's ethnic and nationalist faultlines understandably receive most of what attention there is on Bosnia in the foreign media. But close to the ground, the country's economic troubles are equally pressing. Life here is hard for many: overall unemployment stands at about a third, and half of the population is considered to be under or only just above the poverty line. Officials from the United Nations Development Programme told me that the most shocking statistic they came across was that half of all young people without a job were so disillusioned they were not even registered as unemployed and seeking work. They have given up, alienated by the lack of progress that their country has made over the last decade.

A society that offers little in the way of opportunity or hope to its young people is seriously out of touch with its key resource. At the same time, it is not just a question of the economy. Since the Dayton agreement of November 1995 ended the 1992-95 war, Bosnia has absorbed a lot of international effort and money (a much-cited statistic is that Bosnia has received more aid per head than anywhere else since 1945). There is precious little to show for it other than the absence of war; and the problem arguably lies with the institutional structures that Dayton delivered.

Dayton silenced the guns, but in doing so it froze Bosnia into two entities, with even their respective names lending an air of statehood and permanence to what were supposed to be temporary, provisional structures pending a process of reintegration. The problems of institutional coordination that have resulted are multiple: in trying to make sense of the tricky but vital question of police reform I was told that the country had "thirteen" or "eleven" different interior ministers, each with its own force. Nobody was quite sure about the exact figure, just as nobody is even certain what the population of the country is.

Eleven years on, the election of 1 October may nonetheless prove to be one small step towards a new stage in Bosnia's development. For after all the time and money it has spent, and with growing commitments elsewhere, the international community is now seeking to hand over most of its responsibilities to local politicians. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, who runs Bosnia on behalf of the European Union and United Nations, has announced that June 2007 is the target for the mandate's end.

Before then, key powers (such as control of police forces) must be returned from Bosnia's constituent entities to the central government. For Bosnian politicians, the prospect means surrender of their local (ethnically-based) power-bases and patronage networks. In the case of the Bosnian Serbs, it also threatens the very foundation of what they consider their main success from Dayton, the establishment of the largely autonomous Republika Srpska itself.

Many Bosnian Serbs want to go in the opposite direction. Since Montenegro's referendum on independence from Serbia in May 2006, the influential Republika Srpska prime minister, Milorad Dodik, has been calling for a referendum on the Serb republic's independence from Bosnia. Dodik's party did well in the elections, supporting the trend that took Nebojsa Radmanovic to the Serb part of the presidency. Dodik sees this as a mandate to continue defending the integrity of Republika Srpska and demanding a referendum.

The election results suggest a certain retreat of nationalism among the Muslim and Croat communities. But without support from the Serbs, it is difficult to see how a comprehensive reintegration project could work.

Bosnia's institutional fragmentation also makes the overcoming of ethnic prejudice and lingering post-war animosities far harder to achieve. As the results of ethnic cleansing have stood in the physical separation of communities, the most stable settlements tend to be the ethnically homogenous.

In the few places shared by more than one group - such as Mostar - there is friction. The tourists on day-trips from the Croatian coast who marvel at the rebuilt Stari Most bridge and wander around the Disney-style old quarter may not see it, but the evidence (such as the violent Muslim-Croat communal riots in July, sparked by a world-cup football match) is unmistakable. The bridge across the Neretva river is a very real border.

In search of optimism

The official story in Bosnia is that the country is on the road (albeit long and winding) to European Union membership. The scaling back of international oversight and involvement in Bosnia is part of this exhaustive process. But unofficially it is the international community's way of taking the stabilisers off the Bosnian bicycle. Even if that results in crashes, cuts and bruises, it is the only way (so the argument runs) that the locals will learn how to ride a bicycle properly.

A pessimist can easily argue that all the money the international community has spent has so far failed to rebuild a reconciled Bosnia worthy of its rich multicultural heritage. But Christian Schwarz-Schilling remarked on 2 October that when looking for progress in Bosnia, it should be remembered how long it took the rest of Europe to cast off its past of racism, dictatorship and religious difference.

That is perspective, if not exactly optimism. Bosnia after the elections could do with an injection of both. The fact that Amila Karicic appeared almost as widely on SDA posters as Sulejman Tihic might prove just the start.