SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) - Bosnia's general election should be about the fight against rampant corruption and helping the country's ailing economy. But at a time when Russia has a strong incentive to reignite conflict in the small Balkan nation, Sunday's vote appears set to be an easy test for the long-entrenched nationalists who have ignored the needs of the people.
Voters are choosing the three members of the shared, Bosnian presidency, parliament deputies at the state, entity and regional levels, and the president of the country's Serb-run part. The long-serving Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik, who is running for that last office, has used the election campaign to champion a secessionist agenda and Russia's war in Ukraine.
"(Bosnian Serbs) will gradually cut ties with the arrogant (European Union) bureaucracy in Brussels…(and) cooperate with leaders who respect international law, such as Vladimir Putin," Dodik, who traveled to Moscow this month to secure the Russian leader's explicit endorsement, said at a massively attended campaign rally this week. "When we split (from the rest of Bosnia), we will take with us our 49% of the territory."
Bosnia has never fully recovered from its interethnic 1992-1995 war, with a death toll of nearly, 100,000, which started when Serbs who accounted for about a third of the population tried to dismember it and unite the territories they claimed for their own with neighboring Serbia. In the past eight years alone, almost a half-million people are estimated to have emigrated due to a lack of jobs, poor public services and endemic corruption.
A nationwide opinion survey published last week on public perception of elections indicated that over 40% of Bosnians believed their country's electoral system did not allow for a genuine reflection of citizens' will. Nearly 10% of the respondents in the survey commissioned by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said they experienced pressure on family members while another 6.8% reported having been threatened with loss of employment if they did not vote for a particular party or a candidate.
As a result, the country's political morass is certain to persist beyond the election and Russia "will have no shortage of partners to work with," said Kurt Bassuener of the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based think tank.
A U.S.-brokered peace agreement ended the war in Bosnia by dividing the country into two self-governing entities - one run by Orthodox Serbs and the other shared by Muslim Bosniaks, who account for over a half of the country's 3.3 million people, and Catholic Croats.
The two entities have broad autonomy but are linked by shared, national institutions, and all country-wide actions require consensus from all three ethnic groups.
The sectarian post-war system of governance perpetuates a venomous political climate that allows leaders to enrich their cronies and leaves pragmatic, reform-minded Bosnians with little incentive to vote.
In the immediate post-war years, the international community kept Bosnia on a reform course, pressuring its leaders to accept painful compromises in return for financial and other support.
But as the international focus shifted to other global crises well over a decade ago, Bosnia was mostly left to its own devices. The resulting vacuum created space for the growing influence of Russia, China and Turkey. It also allowed the sectarian political elites to channel popular resentments against imagined enemies to distract from real problems that include mismanagement of public resources and squandering of public funds.
Tribal politicians of all ethnic stripes have largely abandoned the reforms required to propel Bosnia toward promised membership in the European Union and NATO, favoring a clientelist approach to governance which helps them retain power and wealth.
"The West has been very complacent; it has been overconfident that the European Union is the only game in town," Bassuener said. "Because we don't really know what we want other than we just do not want the Balkans to be a problem(,) … the Russian agenda is gaining ground here even as they are losing ground in Ukraine."
Earlier this year, the United States and Britain sanctioned Dodik, accusing him of corrupt activities that threaten to destabilize the region. The U.S. alleged the Bosnian Serb leader used his position to accumulate wealth through graft and bribery.
In the upcoming elections, the traditional ruling class is being challenged by parties which, despite ideological differences and sometimes clashing agendas, share the campaign promise to eradicate the nationalists' patronage networks and sanction acts of corruption within their ranks.
To lure voters and avoid uncomfortable questions about their records in office, Bosniak and Croat nationalists have also embraced Dodik's saber-rattling strategy, portraying political opponents from their own ethnic group as traitors.
On the campaign trail, the main Bosniak leader, Bakir Izetbegovic, who is running for the Bosniak seat on the joint presidency against a candidate endorsed by an ideologically diverse alliance of 11 Bosniak and multi-ethnic parties, has repeatedly portrayed his nationalist party, SDA, as the only true bulwark against secessionism.
During a pre-election rally last week, his wife, Sebija Izetbegovic, a candidate for a legislative position, claimed their party's Bosniak opponents would lead the country's Muslims "to again be slaughtered, interned in concentration camps and dumped in mass graves" by their Serb and Croat compatriots.
The nationalist party of the minority Bosnian Croats, HDZ, has, in turn, threatened to demand the establishment of an exclusively-Croat ethnic region if Borjana Kristo, its candidate for the Croat seat in the tripartite presidency, loses to a nominally non-nationalist rival.
Such jockeying has created a cycle in which "elections are a periodic recalibration of oligarchy" because the West has "effectively given up on the country as being anything other than tribal."
Bassuener insisted "the West has a potential constituency in Bosnia," as evidenced by the rate of exodus from the country and persistently low election turnout.
But absent "a rethink and recalibration of (its) policy" for integration of the Western Balkans, which appears elusive amid right-wing turn in parts of Europe, most recently in Italy, the West could be "caught flat-footed" in Bosnia, he cautioned.