25 years after war, a Bosnian city fights for democracy

MOSTAR, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jan. 17 (UPI) — A European Court decision could open the way for residents of the Bosnian city of Mostar to vote in municipal elections and finally close an illegal landfill poisoning the city.

The European Court for Human Rights ruled Oct. 29 that Bosnia and Herzegovina must allow municipal elections in Mostar, which has not had an elected city council since 2012. The court gave the country six months to devise a solution — a binding verdict because Bosnia is a member state of the Council of Europe.

Mostar’s mayor, Ljubo Beslic, has had full control of the city’s $ 55 million monthly budget since the suspension of the council.

“This is not a democracy,” said Irma Baralija, a 35-year-old teacher and potential city council candidate who filed the suit in the European Court. “It’s an autocracy which benefits the major, his friends and family.”

Devastated during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Mostar had an unconventional elections system which aimed to please the warring sides — Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Bosnia’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2012 that the city’s electoral-college-like system was unconstitutional because the votes of Croatian majority were not worth as much as the votes of Bosniak minority.

The city of Mostar is split, Croats inhabiting one bank of the Neretva River and Bosniaks the other. Each has its own hospital and fire brigade. Even the high school, which sits near the river, holds classes for Bosniak students in the morning and Croat students in the afternoon.

A dispute between the Bosniak and Croat parties led to the city council’s elimination in 2012, although the parties agreed to keep Beslic in place to handle the city budget.

The political paralysis in Mostar has prevented the city from addressing the long-running problems with the Uborak landfill, which was created in the 1960s and set to close in the 1990s. The civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina prevented the closure of the landfill then, and conditions have steadily worsened in the last 25 years.

“It is after so many years high time for politicians to show political maturity and … focus on the implementation of the judgment to enable the citizens of Mostar to exercise their democratic right to vote in the fall of 2020,” said a statement from Valentin Inzko, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose office overlooked the successful implementation of the 1995 peace agreement since the end of the war.

Dissatisfaction with the governing bodies led to a conflict between the city officials and Mostarians, both Croats and Bosniaks, over sanitary conditions in the north of the city. In June, Uborak, which is still used as the city’s main landfill, filed for an extension of its environmental permit, but due to the lack of sanitary conditions the regional Ministry of Environment was unable to issue it. The landfill continued operating without the proper permit until the residents decided to block the entrance to the dumping ground due to reports of unauthorized disposal of medical waste and fish dying in the nearby river. The landfill used to belong to the city but is now a property of the regional government — a legal transition that allowed the regional government to file for a loan from the World Bank representative in Bosnia.

Building a new landfill would be a long and costly process, which the city authorities try to avoid.

“Sadly, the crisis we see today with the collection of garbage in Mostar is a recurring issue reflecting poor governance due to the absence of a city council in Mostar,” Inzko said.

Protesters tried to block access to the landfill on Dec. 7, which sparked a confrontation between police and the protesters in which some claimed they were injured.

“I felt a strong kick across my lower back, and then a second and a third one,” said Aisa Mujala, one of the protesters. “They were dragging me, while I protested and shouted for them to let me go and that they have no right to touch me.”

Police officials have denied they caused any injuries, saying the blockade was ended with minimal force.

Delegation of European Union in Bosnia voiced their concern over the landfill as well. A spokesperson of the EU said that Bosnia and Herzegovina is expected to align with the EU Landfill Directive, and that right to freedom of assembly is the key element of a functioning democratic society. For Bosnia and Herzegovina, a candidate for EU membership, an unauthorized landfill is a thorn in its side, because European integration requires complying to EU regulations.

Mostar residents met Jan. 10 with city officials to discuss possible sites for a new landfill to replace Uborak. The talks are still in progress, although some participants didn’t attend the last meeting, said Nijaz Hodzic, a member of the Because We Care group pushing to close the landfill.

Protesters plan another blockade of the landfill if the city does not act.

Meanwhile, Beslic, the mayor with almost total control of Mostar’s government, has been in hospitals outside the country for more than a month and left the city in the hands of various deputies. Beslic’s spokespeople declined to say who was in charge during his absence, leaving Mostarians uncertain of who controlled city government.

City officials said Beslic was back at work last week.

“I have no idea when he came back,” an official said. “It was a holiday season.”

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