Elections indicate persistent ethnic divide in Bosnia

Muslim voters move to moderates

Serbs, Croats back nationalists

Western officials optimistic

April 10, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Four years after Bosnia's war, weekend elections showed how deep the ethnic divide in this country remains, as Muslim voters shifted toward moderate leaders while Serbs and Croats stayed with old-style nationalists.

Although official preliminary results in the vote for municipal councils were not expected until today, the contending parties' estimates of their showings yesterday were being regarded as reliable. In the past, such assertions have generally proved accurate.

The country is divided into the Bosnian Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation.

The moderate Social Democratic Party claimed victory in 20 cities over hard-line Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic's Party of Democratic Action.

In the Serb Republic - which comprises almost half the country - the Serbian Democratic Party, founded by indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, said it had won 56.5 percent of the vote.

Last week's arrest on war crimes charges of Momcilo Krajisnik, Karadzic's right-hand man, was seen as a major factor in the defeat Saturday of a coalition of Western-backed Serbian moderates led by the republic's prime minister, Milorad Dodik.

"The arrest of Krajisnik caused many people to vote emotionally," said Slavko Mitrovic, a senior aide to Dodik.

Although Karadzic is hiding from NATO-led peacekeeping troops who have vowed to arrest him, he cast a large shadow over the elections, with his party's candidates accusing Dodik of humiliating Serbs by cooperating with the West.

Among Bosnian Croats, voters reportedly continued to back hard-line nationalists of the Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, despite the victory of moderates over the HDZ in neighboring Croatia in January.

After that loss, which followed the death of HDZ founder and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, the new center-left coalition in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, moved to cut off financial support for Bosnian Croat extremists. But the hard-liners said they had managed to hold their ground at the polls.

The Office of the High Representative, the Western administration that holds power over Bosnia's elected governments, saw the council elections as another step away from politics dominated by conflicting ethnic self-interests and toward more common concerns.

"If the trends translate into real results, they will show that people now put more emphasis on daily economic issues like jobs and pension payments rather than nationalist and ethnic rhetoric," said Alex Stiglmayer, spokesman for the high representative, Wolfgang Petritsch of Austria.

The United States and other Western governments have poured billions of dollars into Bosnia-Herzegovina in an effort to rebuild the country as a multiethnic democracy after 43 months of war, which ended with the Dayton peace accords of 1995.

Despite progress on refugee returns in recent months, hard-line nationalists continue to frustrate efforts to reverse "ethnic cleansing" and return families to areas where they would form an ethnic minority.

Zlatko Lagumdzija, who heads the multiethnic Social Democratic Party, said yesterday that he expected to win in 20 municipalities, including Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, and that if he does, he will make sure that minority refugees can return home without conditions.

If Lagumdzija, a computer science professor who taught in the United States, can maintain his momentum, his moderate party could win a crucial victory in national elections, expected in the fall.

Izetbegovic's Party of Democratic Action and coalition partners claimed victory in 35 municipalities in the Muslim-Croat Federation.

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