Bosnia risks political crisis after divisive vote

3 min

Sarajevo (AFP)

Bosnia faced a political crisis Monday after an election left a pro-Russian nationalist holding the Serb seat in the three-way presidency and laid bare tensions between Croat and Bosnian Muslim leaders.

Leaders warned that the results threatened the stability of the political system set up after the ethnic war of the 1990s which left 100,000 people dead.

Voters cast ballots on Sunday to elect three members of the presidency, representing Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks.

Preliminary results indicated that nationalist Milorad Dodik had topped the vote in the Serb entity.

Right-wing nationalist Dragan Covic lost out in his bid for the Croat presidential seat to his moderate rival, Zeljko Komsic.

The Bosnian Muslim seat was won by Sefik Dzaferovic of the conservative SDA.

He urged "everyone to respect" the constitution.

- Russian support -

The 1995 Dayton Agreement to end the war left Bosnia divided along ethnic lines into two semi-independent entities: Serb-run Republika Srpska and the Croat-Muslim Federation, with a loose central government.

Opposed to the centralised system, Dodik has threatened to hold a vote on the Serb entity's secession.

That would unravel the delicate arrangement that has kept peace since the 1992-95 conflict.

Dodik has vowed to work "solely in the interest and for the benefit of Republika Srpska".

He promised to ensure "support through his diplomatic contacts" -- in particular Russia, where he met President Vladimir Putin during the campaign.

"Dodik will be an obstructionist factor, but the presidency has limited powers," said Florian Bieber, a professor of southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria.

"He can block, but not impose decisions."

Dodik has called for the closing down of the office of the High Representative, an international entity overseeing peace in the country.

He also wants to expel foreign members of the constitutional court.

A political analyst in Sarajevo, Ranko Mavrak, told AFP Dodik will not be able to act as an "absolute ruler".

But he cautioned: "Whether he will manage in that way is another matter, because Dodik is known as a short-tempered person not given to compromise."

- Croat secession demands -

Covic's nationalist HDZ party is also demanding Croats secede from the union with the Bosniaks.

His defeat looked likely to fan tensions in the federation, as Covic and Croat media blamed it on Muslim voters.

Covic complained that Bosnian Muslim voters appeared to have rallied behind his rival.

Muslims "cannot chose legitimate representatives to Croats. It is a step backwards," Covic said.

Komsic has promised to work for a "civic Bosnia" beyond ethnic divisions.

But Covic said Komsic's victory threatens to spark "an unprecedented crisis in Bosnia".

Croatian newspaper Vecernji List said in a headline: "Muslims have chosen for Croats: the defeat of Bosnia and Herzegovina."

"HDZ has usually opted for escalation and confrontation when it lost in elections," said Bieber.

"It is likely that they will engage in a similar strategy" now, the analyst added.

- Turbulence ahead -

Mladen Ivanic, a moderate Serb candidate defeated by Dodik, forecast "serious turbulence" in the Croat-Muslim Federation.

He said it would only be resolved in the "long term".

Sarajevo-based analyst Mavrak said he did not rule out that the rivals would end up joining forces in a multi-ethnic government, however.

"When it comes to power, Bosnian politicians are much more ready to make a compromise than it initially seems," Mavrak said.

But the negotiations to form one could take months, he warned.