BIHAC, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — The most bitter political violence occurring in Bosnia today is between Muslims and Muslims in the northwestern city of Bihac.
Bihac, on the strategic corridor between Bosnia and Croatia in an area known as the Krajina, has become the flashpoint for elections-related violence aimed at snuffing out opposition to Bosnia's ruling Party for Democratic Action (SDA), the party of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic.
The story of intense political violence within Bosnia's Muslim community reveals how four years of war have altered the political consciousness of a nation once committed to ethnic tolerance, but now overcome with fears about its security.
The United Nations reports 12 explosions targeted at the homes of opposition political candidates and their supporters have rocked the Bihac area in the past week. "We believe all are politically related and are targeted at supporters of opposition parties. Hand grenades have been thrown at houses," says UN spokesperson Alex Ivanko.
Victims of the political harassment have accused local police and local SDA officials of organizing the attacks.
While no one has been severely injured, UN officials in Bihac say the attacks have served their purpose of intimidating supporters of opposition parties from casting their ballots on election day next month.
"[The intimidation] will have dire consequences for the whole election process because people that support opposition parties will prefer, for security reasons, not to exercise their right to vote," Ivanko reports.
Analysts here trace Bihac's volatility to its controversial history. During the war, many citizens of Bihac were employed as factory workers at the Agrokomers food-processing plant. Led by the Agrokomers chief-turned-politician, Fikret Abdic, they fought against the Bosnian government, siding at times with the Croats, then the Bosnian Serbs, in an effort to preserve their relatively good quality of life.
As the fortunes of the Bosnian government's armed forces improved and it began to win back territory in the Krajina in 1995, 30,000 of Mr. Abdic's Muslim followers, fearing retribution, fled over the Croatian border. They lived in cold, squalid conditions in the Kuplensko refugee camp.
These "Abdic people," as they are called, have been drifting back into the Bihac area since the war ended in December 1995 and have become the targets of political violence aimed at keeping them from voting on election day. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is concerned about rising the political violence and intimidation in Bihac. "Sadly today, Bihac stands out as the scene of the most violence in the [Bosnian] federation," says Kris Janowski, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Sarajevo.
Abdic's Democratic People's Union (DNZ) party is running in Bihac for municipal and other local offices. It has enough support to generate fears among local SDA party chiefs of a DNZ win.
Observers here say it would be hard to trace the explosions in Bihac back to SDA headquarters in Sarajevo. They say the attacks are more likely being directed by local SDA party chiefs. Victims of the harassment say it is coming from the local SDA party chief and local police. "The harassment is intended to keep people from voting, and it seems to be having that effect," Ivanko says.
While many Bosnians consider Abdic a traitor, and a Bosnian government court indicted him for war crimes earlier this month, he has not been indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague and is therefore eligible to run for office.
"Look, the Bosnian government assured the Abdic people that they could come back, that they wouldn't be harmed. Now they have come, and are exercising their legal rights as citizens to support the candidates they wish to, and they are being attacked. If the Bosnian government really believes in democracy, then it has to respect the political views of the opposition," says a staff member of UNHCR.
More subtle political pressure here is widespread too. Reports of people losing their jobs because they are not SDA members are common. People are bombarded with the message that not voting for SDA is a disloyal vote against a strong Bosnia.
SDA campaign posters in Tuzla read: "You know who the Serbs are going to vote for, you know who the Croats are going to vote for. Who are you going to vote for? SDA." The posters play on the fears of Bosnians that hard-line separatist Serb and Croat parties are winning among Bosnia's two ethnic minorities and will lead to Bosnia losing large swathes of territory if the Army-backed SDA loses.
Insiders to the campaign of former Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic say he is under pressure to withdraw his Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina from the campaign because it may take too many votes away from the SDA. In this scenario, the Bosnian Serb presidential candidate, Momcilo Krajisnik, could end up winning the position of president of the three-party presidency.
The Bosnian government has remained silent on the issue. But last week, Bosnian President Izetbegovic, the SDA leader, said, "We cannot afford to lose in peace what we have defended with our blood in the hard years of the war."