Bosnia Votes, But Minds Seem Set

The people of Bosnia go to the polls Sunday with little sign that the ethnic divisions that lead to civil war in the 1990s have been left behind.

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Voters in Bosnia go to the polls tomorrow in an election that is likely to keep rival nationalist leaders in power. Fifteen years after the Dayton Agreement that ended a bloody war and split the country into a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb republic, ethnic and political mistrust often still prevail.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Sarajevo.

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SYLVIA POGGIOLI: There are no lyrics in the Bosnian national anthem - just one sign of how hard it is for the country's three ethnic groups to agree on anything. The Dayton Agreement produced a complex government structure based on two ethnic entities. Voters will cast ballots for numerous presidents, prime ministers and parliaments.

Traveling through Bosnia, one finds segregated communities. Very few refugees have returned home, and many younger people have never met a member of the other ethnic groups.

Ahmed Alibasic of Sarajevo's Faculty of Islamic Studies says fear keeps the nationalists in power.

AHMED ALIBASIC: We have people who are fear- mongers, who go around and frighten people. You know, if you don't support this or that, then you are going - you are risking your identity. And the fear factor has not been removed from our political equations yet.

POGGIOLI: Opinion polls suggest nationalists will be reelected, but perhaps with less support, forcing them to form coalitions with more moderate parties.

International officials in Bosnia are pinning their hopes on some 80,000 young new voters with no memory of war.

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POGGIOLI: But 20-year-old Admira Sitnic say many of her friends are disaffected and weary.

ADMIRA SITNIC: Many young people think that the situation is so terrible so they don't want to vote. And you have to convince them to do that.

POGGIOLI: One group of eager young voters gathers in the main square of Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska, the Bosnia-Serb entity. They call themselves Serb patriots who reject the idea of a unified Bosnia, dear to Muslims, known as Bosniaks.

Mara Radivoijsa studies English literature at the local university.

MARA RADIVOIJSA: Bosnia is our enemy because they are Muslim's creation people and we are Serbs. They don't like us. And we don't like them.

POGGIOLI: Radivoijsa echoes the Serb republic's president, Milorad Dodik, a Social Democrat turned nationalist who believes the creation of Bosnia was a mistake. Dodik has threatened to secede and create an independent statelet.

Igor Radojicic, speaker of the Bosnian-Serb parliament, is slightly more diplomatic. He says it's time to reduce sharply the international community's political role in Bosnia.

IGOR RADOJICIC: Especially in Republika Srpska, there is a total rejection of farther(ph) presence of the international community to impose smaller reforms, laws, legislation, decisions - it's over.

POGGIOLI: But even in the Bosnian Serb republic, a more moderate voice has emerged. Economics professor and opposition candidate Mladen Ivanic says the country can function only through political compromise. Dayton is a fact of life, he says, and Bosnian Serbs have to accept a unified Bosnia.

MLADEN IVANIC: I expect to same from my Bosnian colleagues. Bosnia is there, but they have to accept the fact that Republika Srpska is there. And once we did that, I think we would immediately have a much better condition for these small steps. Without that, it will be always conflict, conflict, conflict; it's only conflict.

POGGIOLI: Nationalist interests dominated the election campaign but the economy could be the biggest challenge. It shrank three percent in 2009 and official unemployment is running at 43 percent. Bosnia is operating thanks to loans from the International Monetary Fund that will require sharp spending cuts next year. Some analysts say further belt tightening could lead to social unrest and undermine the nationalists' grip on power.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Sarajevo.

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