Mostar in southern Bosnia has held local elections for the first time since 2008, after a western-brokered deal ended a 12-year impasse between the ethnically divided city’s main Croat and Bosniak political parties.
Voters in the picturesque 100,000-strong city overlooking the turquoise Neretva river cast ballots on Sunday for 35 councillors, who will elect a new mayor to replace veteran incumbent Ljubo Beslic.
He was elected in 2004 and served as acting mayor after his second term expired in 2013, by which point a row over electoral rules had paralysed Mostar’s politics and disrupted provision of some basic services.
With no council to oversee the mayor’s office and citywide institutions in disarray, divisions deepened between Bosniak and Croat districts that face each other across the Neretva, linked by a famous Ottoman-era bridge that was destroyed during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war and rebuilt a decade later.
Uncollected rubbish piled up, infrastructure crumbled, investment stopped and people from both communities left the city in droves to seek work abroad.
The turning point came late last year, when local philosophy teacher Irma Baralija won her case against Bosnia at the European Court of Human Rights for depriving her of the right to vote.
After mediation by European Union and United States diplomats, Bosniak and Croat party leaders signed off on a deal in June that paved the way for Sunday's vote.
“I hope that my example will inspire citizens of Mostar, when they vote on Sunday, to be brave, to realise that as individuals we can bring positive change,” said Ms Baralija, who ran in the election for the multi-ethnic Our Party.
She told the AP news agency that her court victory “busted the myth [that nationalist parties] have been feeding to us, that an individual cannot move things forward, that we matter only as members of our ethnic groups”.
EU ambassador to Bosnia Johann Sattler said it was a "historic day" for the city: "Mostarians waited way too long, for 12 years . . . I want to thank Mostarians for their patience."
Mostar, where ethnic parties have prioritised their own power over the wellbeing of the city and its residents, has been a microcosm of a Bosnia mired in corruption, bureaucracy and animosity between nationalist political leaders.
The Bosniak and Croat members of the country's tripartite presidency boycotted talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov last week, in protest at his decision to first meet separately with Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who has threatened to take his region out of Bosnia and into union with Serbia.
Mr Dodik gave his guest a centuries-old icon that is believed to be from Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, where Bosnian Serb nationalists have fought alongside Russian-backed separatists. Moscow said on Saturday it would return the gift.