Bosnians wary of the future

SARAJEVO (Reuters) – Bosnians as well as businesses say they are defying the odds just to stay afloat but they expect little change after Sunday’s general election, which has been dominated by ethnic issues. «It’s too rotten to be fixed with one election,» said Igor Todorovic, who runs a grocery shop in the Bosnian-Serb Republic’s administrative center of Banja Luka. He employs one worker at the minimum wage of 205 Bosnian marka (105 euros) a month and works himself 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to take home 700 marka, a reward for «missing out on my sons’ growing up, first day in school, playing in the park.» Things have got worse since the launch of 17-percent value-added tax (VAT) this year, said the 35-year-old, who now sells mostly basic staples to pensioners. «I pay all my dues to the state, but it does nothing to make it easier for people like me,» he said, leaning on the counter of his rundown shop. «I’d shut down, but what’s the alternative?» The Balkan country’s peace sponsors hope that disgruntled Bosnians such as Todorovic can help bring about a change in the fifth postwar general election by choosing leaders committed to improving the economy and people’s lives. But apathy and disillusionment dominate after more than a decade of hardship following the 1992-95 war. «I will vote only if I’m not too tired to go out… but I don’t know if any of us can change anything,» Todorovic said. The country of about 4 million people – divided into Muslim-Croat and Serb regions – is one of Europe’s poorest, with gross national income per capita less than $2,500 and an unemployment rate above 20 percent. Traditionally, strong metals and wood processing have kept the economic growth rate at 5-6 percent in recent years but Western experts say serious reforms are needed to maintain this. Economic issues have largely taken a back seat in the election campaign in favor of talk about protecting the interests of Bosnia’s three ethnic groups. «You can still win the election better with fear than with promise of reform,» Dirk Reinermann of the World Bank said. The World Bank’s annual «Doing Business» study saw Bosnia slip four places to 95th among 176 countries in the world, ranking among the bottom third when it comes to starting a business, dealing with licenses or registering property. Overseas investors have put in less than $2 billion in 11 years, an environment that prevents successful businesses such as the Sarajevo-based IT firm Ping from growing. It rose in 10 years to become one of the top five in the sector, with annual turnover of close to 4 million marka and 40 employees. But director Muamer Bezdrob does not plan to expand for now because of high labor and other costs. On top of the net wage, employers have to pay about 70 percent of that amount in tax and other contributions. «It’s the survival of the strongest and the fittest and employing more people without incentives would only burden our business,» Bezdrob said.