Ethnic tensions escalate in Bosnia's ‘most divided' city

Published 01.04.2016 21:21

Ethnic tensions are beginning to rise again in Bosnia-Herzegovina's historical city of Mostar as it edges close to local elections this year.

The elections, if held in October as in the rest of the country, will be the first in the city in eight years. Mostar was administratively divided into six municipalities, divided equally between Bosnians and Croats, since the Bosnian War in 1995. Bosnians live mainly east of the Neretva River, while Croats are in the west. In 2004, former High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina Paddy Ashdown took the initiative to bridge differences between the two sides by issuing a new statute aimed at establishing a single municipality in Mostar.

But the regulations could not be confirmed and put into action due to opposition by Croats, who feared Bosnians would get equal or more rights in those parts of the city where Croats are in the majority.

Because of the statute issued in the city, local elections were not held in Mostar in 2012, although they were in 2008. Leaders on both sides failed to agree in Bosnia's House of Representatives, one of two chambers of parliament, eventually paving the way for the Constitutional Court to declare that the electoral statute of the city was unconstitutional. As a result, the municipality has remained without a city council since 2012, which has created severe management issues in Mostar.

Mostar Mayor Ljubo Beslic, who belongs to the Croatian Democratic Union, today functions as a unitary authority elected through six voting units. Every unit has the same number of councilors despite a different number of voters in the unit. The Bosniak Party of Democratic Action is the other main party in the city.

Recently, three provocative actions targeted the sentiments of Bosnians in Mostar, sparking tensions in an already divided city. Last week, a Croatian flag was drawn on nearby mountain Planinica on the Croats-majority side of the city, which sparked outrage among Bosnians, who objected that the city was not part of Croatia, but Bosnia. In the same week, an unidentified person threw a stone inscribed with "do not forget ‘93" into the Neretva River, which again created anger among Bosnians. The stones symbolically represent the Old Bridge, which was destroyed in 1993 by Croats. The same week, a sign bearing the names of the countries that contributed to the reconstruction of the Old Bridge was damaged.

Bosnian leaders have so far fallen short of resolving the ongoing struggle for organizing local elections in Mostar. Bosnia and Herzegovina's Presidency Council Chairman Bakir Izetbegovic said on Sunday that talks over Mostar remained futile. "If there are four municipalities in Sarajevo, I do not think there would be a problem for Mostar to have four or six municipalities," said Izetbegovic.

Dragan Covic, a Croatian member of the council, said Sunday that his side was ready to offer solutions. "Unfortunately, I did not receive any comments on our party's solution offer. I think no one has read our proposal. I want everyone to read the solution we propose," Covic said. But while both leaders reviewed their own proposals, neither offered reactions to the recent acts of provocations in Mostar nor urged the public to stay calm. It is because of this indecisiveness that it remains unclear whether Mostar will hold local elections in October this year.

Mostar city is best known for its iconic Old Bridge, a historical and tourist draw that connects the eastern and western sides of the city, constructed over the Neretva River between 1557 and 1566, after the citizens of Mostar asked Sultan Suleiman to build it. On Nov. 9, 1993, the Old Bridge was destroyed by heavy fire from Croatian forces. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia sentenced former Bosnian Croat leader Jadranko Prlic and five co-defendants to between 10 to 25 years imprisonment on charges of "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnian Muslims and the destruction of the Ottoman-era Old Bridge of Mostar during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

But while the bridge was reconstructed in 2004, with hopes this would reunite the city's east and the west, people in the small Bosnian city continued to struggle with coexistence. Today Mostar is known as the most divided city in Bosnia.

Citizens in Mostar hope the divide between the two peoples will end one day. They also believe the recent acts of provocation were nothing but "dirty election games" and "political tricks" designed at increasing tensions between ethnic groups before local elections. Adisa Maslo Hadziomerovic told Anadolu Agency that such provocations are being carried out to demonstrate nationalist fervor. "Unfortunately, this is proof that nationalism has damaged minds," said Hadziomerovic.

Vera Soldo, a journalist, also condemned the recent attacks on the historical bridge of Mostar and pointed out that the bridge is under the protection of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Another citizen, Irma Pehilj, called for unity in Mostar. Pehilj said: "Mostar is not just the most beautiful city in Bosnia, but the world as well. Let's be united and defend our city with love."

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