Nina Popovic has been eligible to vote for a decade but she has never had a say in the leadership of her Bosnian hometown of Mostar –- a city that will hold its first local election in 12 years on Sunday.
Twenty-five years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended Bosnia’s war, Mostar is a symbol of the communal splits and broken politics that have haunted the Balkan state ever since.
Predominantly Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks in the city are represented by nationalist parties that have been unable to agree on a legal issue.
This has led to a failure to hold an election and meant the city of 100,000 people has not had a local council since 2012.
The delay is “a sad truth and not a source of pride, but I still have hope that it will be better afterwards”, Popovic, who works in a puppet theatre, told AFP of her belated chance to vote.
The agreement that made the December 20 poll possible came about largely thanks to the work of Irma Baralija, a political scientist who fought for her right to vote in court.
The 36-year-old sued her country at the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in October 2019 that she was a victim of “discrimination” and ordered the Bosnian state to organise municipal elections in Mostar.
“This verdict showed that every individual is important and can bring about change,” Baralija, energetic and smiling, told AFP.
“Everyone can now make an individual choice also to choose a new name on 20 December.”
– ‘Ruled by fear’ –
Building on the strength of her court victory, Baralija is running in the race as the leader of Nasa Stranka (Our Party), a rare multi-ethnic party in a country still divided between the Bosniak, Croat and Serb communities who clashed in the 1990s war.
Baralija, a Bosniak, has been campaigning in both parts of the city and dreams of reviving the old Mostar that existed before the 1992-95 conflict carved it up.
Home to a stunning Ottoman-style bridge that peaks above the emerald green Neretva river, multi-ethnic Mostar was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the former Yugoslavia.
Today everything is arranged to discourage contact between its two communities.
There are separate post offices, electricity and water suppliers, telecoms companies, hospitals, national theatres, schools, football clubs and more.
This system helps entrench the dominant nationalist parties, the Croat-led HDZ and the Bosniak SDA, says Amna Popovac, a 50-year-old businesswoman and candidate running with another small party, the Platform for Progress.
“A truly unified city is a great threat to them,” she told AFP.
Many in Mostar remain “ruled by fear”, says Popovac, who lives on the Croat side of the city despite being Bosniak, and recalls with emotion how her neighbours protected her family during the war.
“Destroyed buildings have been left as a reminder of what could happen if you don’t vote for your camp,” she said, referring to several buildings on the war-time demarcation line that have never been repaired.
– Crossing the divide –
This year the two main parties — HDZ and SDA — are fielding new candidates who are calling for more unity in the city.
But their critics are sceptical.
Marin Bago, head of an NGO that works on improving city life, sees their change of tone as window dressing.
“They have understood that now citizens want a normal city. But none of them are going to the other side and that shows their real intentions”.
Slaven Raguz, the 41-year-old head of the right-wing Croatian Republican Party, is also a critic of the nationalist camps that have dominated the city — and Bosnia — for years.
“Mostar is divided like the whole of Bosnia,” he told AFP.
The country at large is similarly cut into ethnic zones, and its politics are defined by corruption and dysfunction.
“A political elite, independently of their nationality, has divided up the areas of the city like Colombian cartels… and they are squandering the budget without any responsibility,” said Raguz.
The elections will be a chance to see who else is tired of the enduring divides.
Popovic, the young actress, was born during the war and says she has resisted pressure to choose sides.
She lives in a Croat neighbourhood and works in a theatre in the Bosniak zone.
Every day, she crosses the iconic Old Bridge, which was rebuilt in 2004 after being destroyed by shelling during the war.
Aware of the “cruel reality of divisions” that have pushed most of her friends to emigrate abroad, she still hangs on to hope for change.
“I certainly know people on both sides who go to the other side only if they have to,” she said.
“But nobody is born with a border in their head. That is created by manipulation.”
by Rusmir SMAJILHODZIC