September 28, 2018 / 1:17 PM / in 24 days

Bosnians fear for economy as ethnic divisions dominate election agenda

SARAJEVO/TRAVNIK (Reuters) - Bosnia’s dire unemployment and corruption problems have been driving its youth abroad for years and many believe the ethnically divisive rhetoric which has dominated the run-up to elections on Oct. 7 means things are about to get worse.

Students and teachers attend practice learning in GS-TMT in Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Bosnian Serb presidential candidate Milorad Dodik has been campaigning for greater autonomy and eventual secession of the Serb-dominated region, while Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Covic has called for the creation of a separate Croat-run region.

These were the issues at the core of the 1992-95 war in which 100,000 were killed. Only the Social Democratic Party candidate Denis Becirevic has made the economy one of the priorities of his election campaign.

Many in Bosnia’s business community are in despair.

“When I turn on the TV and listen to their messages, the only impulse I have is to pack my staff and leave,” said Snjezana Koepruner, the general manager and majority owner of the GS-TMT metal processing plant in Travnik in central Bosnia.

“But I feel responsible for 327 people who earn their daily bread in this firm,” said Koepruner. Her company, which exports metal parts to the industries across Europe, is one of the most desirable employers in Travnik where larger, pre-war companies are struggling to survive.

A worker puts up Sefik Dzaferovic pre-election poster in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

A lack of reliable polls and accusations of electoral fraud and irregularities ahead of the vote are making predictions of the outcome difficult. But analysts see the Oct. 7 vote as a crossroads for Bosnia at which it will either pursue its path towards European Union membership and NATO integration, or held back by its ethnic rivalries.

“These are key elections because all political trends since 2014 until today were negative, incorporating ideas that aim at further disintegration and even dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” said Slavo Kukic, a sociology professor at Zenica University in central Bosnia.

“If these political philosophies win the October election, these trends will continue and anything could happen,” Kukic said.

Bosnia’s youth unemployment rate stood at 38.8 percent in July this year, according to official data. Some argue that ruling elite’s failure to address joblessness is reflected in Bosnia’s emigration statistics.

About 170,000 Bosnians have left the country since 2013, nearly 5 percent of its population of 3.5 million, according to an NGO campaigning for the return of the diaspora, the Union for Sustainable Return and Integration in Bosnia, which was established for the 1.1 million Bosnians who fled during the war.

“ONE WAY TICKET”

The queues at the Slovenian and German embassies and consulates are getting longer every day, with scores of people - most of them between the ages of 20 to 40 - waiting to obtain work visas.

Slideshow (7 Images)

“It’s not so much because of money but because of security,” Velimir Vujanovic, 29, told Reuters when asked why he was leaving Bosnia for Slovenia. “There are no prospects here because nobody cares for the young people.”

Vujanovic, a Bosnian Serb, left his northern hometown of Tuzla during the war and moved with his family to the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia.

About 80 percent of Bosnians said they would go abroad for work, according to a report by recruitment agency Posao.ba recruitment agency.

Endemic corruption is another factor driving people abroad.

“The people are discouraged by the general social and political situation and worried by the prospect of their children watching bad students get jobs through political and family connections,” said Adisa Karahodzic, a manager at the leather and textile confectionary producer Koteks Tesanj.

“We have whole families leaving,” Karahodzic said.

Vujanovic, a trained butcher, said he did not see his future in Bosnia and was not planning to return.

“I’ve bought a one-way ticket,” he said.

Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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