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Immigrants in St. Louis could help decide an election in Bosnia

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 11, 2013 - The Prvi Mart initiative, an international movement to facilitate voter registration among refugees from the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s, announced the founding of U.S. operations on Sunday at a public meeting on the campus of Fontbonne University, hosted by the Bosnia Memory Project. Given that St. Louis is said to have the largest population of Bosnians in the United States, organizers hoped for a large turnout.

The goal of the movement, said coalition leader Emir Suljagić, who addressed the group via Skype from Sarajevo, is to upset the political status quo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. To do so, they seek to fill five seats in the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Republika Srpska with representatives who support the coalition’s platform, which emphasizes an end to genocide denial.

A gain of five seats would counteract the effect of “entity voting,” a practice enabled by the Dayton Agreement of 1995 that allows the Serb parliamentary minority to block votes perceived as counter to their interests.

The movement is the outgrowth of a similar effort in the city of Srebrenica, also led by Suljagić, that he reports registered 4,500 citizens to vote in the October 2012 elections, resulting in the election of a mayor there who supports the Prvi Mart platform.

“We want to start dismantling the system from within,” says Refik Hodzić, who also spoke to the audience on Sunday. Hodzić, originally from Prijedor, Bosnia-Herzegovina, now lives in New York City where he is director of communications for the International Center for Transitional Justice.

“Bosnian political discourse is based on the outcomes of genocide,” Hodzić said. “Political reality in Bosnia is based on the outcomes of genocide. The policies of genocide denial, and the counter-policies, are a huge smoke screen for the current political establishment in Bosnia for plunder, for their personal enrichment.”

Prvi Mart’s efforts are “not directed against any political party or for any political party,” Hodzić explained before the meeting, they are “directed against what are the fundamental wrongs of Bosnian politics: denial of crimes that have occurred, sowing of hatred, especially among young people, blocking the sort of mechanisms that would give people a motive to work for Bosnia as a state – accession to the EU, accession to NATO – all these different elements that make for a hopeful future.”

Edin Ramulić, the third presenter at Sunday’s event, an activist living and working in Prijedor, Bosnia-Herzegovina, described the politics of genocide denial on a more personal level. In Prijedor, he said through an interpreter, about 10,000 refugees have returned to their pre-war homes only to be met by denial of the crimes done to them (crimes that have been recognized by international courts) and forbidden to publically recognize their dead.

Ramulić described the official response to his and others’ efforts to educate the public about events that had occurred in Prijedor during the war, and to publicize what they view as ongoing, widespread discrimination against non-Serbs, especially victims of war.

Their message was blocked, he says. All events they attempted to host in Prijedor were officially forbidden: “We have the entire system against us. No one from Serb NGOs or the church was against what we were doing. The only ones against us were the government system and the paid patrons, in the form of police and media. Non-governmental activism in Bosnia is limited by the governmental system.”

The Dayton Agreement, which established the outline of post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, provides displaced Bosnian citizens the right to vote in the municipalities in which they lived in 1991, at the time of the last pre-war census.

Prvi Mart organizers aim to mobilize 100,000 such voters, especially those living in the diaspora – which Hodzić estimates at 800,000 people, 300,000-400,000 of whom are eligible to vote –  to gain the five seats they seek.

In the United States alone, Hodzić says, about 59,000 Bosnian citizens are already registered to vote, and another 10,000 who have Bosnian passports can register with relative ease. Others are eligible, but face greater administrative complication.

St. Louis is home to the largest population of Bosnians in the U.S., about 60,000, suggesting Bosnian-St. Louisans may have a significant opportunity to impact the 2014 Bosnian elections should they choose to vote.

“The execution of this will be very technical,” Hodzić told Sunday’s audience, “it will resemble Obama’s effort at registering and getting people out to vote.” He described Prvi Mart in terms of the American civil rights movement, in which disenfranchised groups took action on their own behalf.

A report by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance describes a steady and precipitous decline in voter-participation by Bosnians in diaspora since the first post-war elections were held in 1996, when 630,257 eligible voters were registered outside of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with nearly 400,000 participating. By 2002, the total number of external, registered voters had declined to 58,000, a trend that has continued.

Hodzić identified two “clusters of obstacles” to the success of the Prvi Mart initiative. First, the current political establishment in Bosnia-Herzegovina: “all those who are intent on maintaining a status quo and the outcomes of genocide.”

But “more formidable is the apathy of Bosnians and Herzegovinians. This room today testifies to that apathy,” Hodzić said, indicating the sparsely filled auditorium. “People abroad have been cheated so many times by messages of hope and progress.”

This time is different, asserted Suljagić: “History has opened a window for us. We are fighting for a vision. We do not have guns and airplanes; we have our votes. Vote this monster down,” he implored near the end of the meeting, raw urgency coming through the webcam.

“Go online, fill out a form, copy your ID card, place it in an envelope, mail it. If you can’t do it yourself, there will be people to help you. If you hate walking, scan it, email it. I knew people who have done much more for this country.”

According to Hodzić, Prvi Mart in the United States has not yet established sources of funding, nor a formal outreach strategy, but will be developing plans of action in the coming weeks.

The Prvi Mart page on Facebook, in Bosnian language and created on Nov. 28, 2012, has just shy of 5,500 followers. Nearly 300 joined in the 24 hours leading up to the meetings at Fontbonne.

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