SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina (AFP) — In a country where political power is formally shared by three ethnic groups, Bosnians who identify as “ostali” — or “others,” a category that includes Jews and Roma — are second-class citizens.
They can vote in Sunday’s general elections but will never be able to run for high office in a country where presidential candidates must identify as ethnic Serb, Croat, or Muslim.
“We are like ghosts in our country,” said Lana Velic, a 36-year-old who does not talk about which group her parents come from.
“People have been told for 20 years that if they do not declare themselves as Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), they will lose their identity,” Velic, who sits on Sarajevo’s city council, told AFP.
The constitutional requirement for presidents to tick one of the three boxes is part of peace deal that stopped war between Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims in the 1990s.
That conflict claimed more than 100,000 lives.
To halt the violence, the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords created a complex system that sees the Serb, Croat and Muslim presidents rotate chairs every eight months.
While it has brought peace to Bosnia, the set-up has effectively marginalized a segment of the population that could be the country’s best hope for moving past its still-bitter communal divides.
According to the 2013 census, the ostali make up four percent of the 3.5 million population.
In comparison, Bosnian Muslims make up slightly more than half of the population, followed by Orthodox Christian Serbs at around one third, and Catholic Croats at 15%.
In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) urged Bosnia to drop its official discrimination against presidential candidates and members of the upper chamber of the national parliament.
“And yet Sunday’s elections will be the third since then without any constitutional change,” said Jakob Finci.
Finci, a representative of a small Jewish community in Sarajevo, brought that case to the court in 2006.
But he sees little hope for change in a country where front-running nationalists are drawing the country’s main groups even further apart.
“We expected to have at least 14% of people united by the idea that certain communities should not dominate others,” said Jovan Divjak, another ostali who said he was disappointed by the census figure.
The former military man wishes only to identify as Bosnian.
But he is still remembered as the Serbian general who defended Sarajevo alongside Croats and Muslims during the war.
For many Serbs, this cooperation makes Divjak a traitor.
In Bosnia, “all problems are seen through the national prism: my people, my religion, my territory,” he lamented.
There is one multi-ethnic political party, Nasa Stranka, that has made a home for ostali.
But they are minnows in a political scene where all the dominant players are defined by their ethnic affiliations.
Finci is not looking forward to Monday, the day after the polls.
International observers “will issue a statement saying that the elections went well,” he says, forgetting the “citizens of this country who cannot be candidates.”