- Associated Press - Sunday, October 3, 2010

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — With the top candidates fiercely at odds over Bosnia’s future, voters cast ballots Sunday in elections likely to further entrench their nation’s ethnic divisions and threaten possible entry into the European Union.

Some 3 million voters in a country uneasily split between Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats are choosing from 8,000 candidates for the central and several regional parliaments, the Bosnian Serb presidency and the federal presidency.

The postwar deal split the country into two highly autonomous regions — one for the Serbs and the other shared by the Bosniaks and Croats. The two regions are loosely linked by a central government, parliament and a three-member presidency.

But 15 years after the ethnic war sparked by the breakup of Yugoslavia, and despite five postwar elections, the vote is still expected to fall along ethnic lines.

The campaign has been characterized by harsh rhetoric, with Serbs demanding secession, Croats calling for the possibility of their own autonomous region and Bosniaks — Bosnian Muslims — seeking a stronger central government.

The EU has told Bosnia that if it wishes to join, it must create a stronger central government, which the country’s Serbs vehemently oppose

“People in Bosnia want different things, opposite things, and they elect their representatives accordingly,” said Asim Hadrovic, 46, as he left his Sarajevo district’s polling station.

Comments by the top Serb and Bosniak candidates reflected the divide.

Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Serb part of Bosnia, who is running for his entity’s presidency, spoke scornfully of present-day Bosnia as an “absurd country” that lacks internal compromise.

It would be best if the country fell apart peacefully, he said after voting in his home town of Laktasi.

In turn, Haris Silajdzic, who is seeking re-election to the Bosniak seat of the country’s three-member presidency, criticized both Bosnian Serbs and neighboring Serbia for what he said was their shared goal of breaking up the country.

“Their double game has led to all of this,” Mr. Silajdzic said in Sarajevo, suggesting that only Serbia’s support of Bosnian Serbs has kept their independence drive alive.

Such rivalries have kept Bosnia’s government largely at a stalemate. Long and frustrating EU- and U.S.-led negotiations over constitutional changes to simplify the political setup and strengthen the central government were put on ice earlier this year in hopes that it would be easier to find a compromise after Sunday’s elections.

But voters appear likely to re-elect the same leaders, setting the stage for another four years of drift and diminishing the possibility of a path to the EU.

That leaves the nation mired in economic hardship and political uncertainty — and as a potential jump-off point for Islamic radicalism.

Bosnia is “a weak, decentralized state,” noted the U.S. State Department in its Country Reports on Terrorism 2009, which blamed Serb officials for trying to undermine federal structures.

The Serb efforts hampered attempts to combat terrorism and terrorist financing, said the report, leaving Bosnia “vulnerable to exploitation as a potential staging ground for terrorist operations in Europe.”

Political analyst Tanja Topic compared the pre-election campaign to one in 1990, when communist Yugoslavia had just collapsed and Bosnia split along ethnic lines over whether it should become part of greater Serbia or be an independent, multiethnic country.

“So for exactly 20 years we have been spinning around in the same political pattern,” Ms. Topic said.

Associated Press writer George Jahn contributed to this report from Vienna, Austria.

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