SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Just before Bosnia’s presidential elections on Sunday, the separatist Serb leader Milorad Dodik made sure to pay a public visit to one of his most important backers: President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Mr. Dodik dropped in at a Formula 1 Grand Prix race in Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, where the two men were photographed shaking hands last week and Mr. Putin wished Mr. Dodik “good luck” in the voting. Mr. Dodik proudly noted that the elections fall on Mr. Putin’s birthday.
He gave the Russian leader a pin as a present, but his real gift to Mr. Putin seems to be doing whatever he can to undermine the fragile state institutions that hold ethnically divided Bosnia and Herzegovina together — a goal shared by another ethnic nationalist in the race, the Croat leader Dragan Covic.
“Bosnia is hanging by a thread, and Dodik and Covic want to cut it,” said Reuf Bajrovic, a leader of the Civic Alliance of Bosnia.
For Bosnia, the poorest country in the Balkans, the campaign has exacerbated many of the ingrained problems troubling the country since the war: corruption, high unemployment, rising nativism, public disillusionment and foreign meddling.
Bosnia’s political and electoral system, designed two decades ago as part of the Dayton peace accord that ended the war in 1995, remains divided between a Serb-dominated autonomous region and a Croat-Muslim federation.
The presidency at stake on Sunday is shared by a Croat, Serb and a Muslim, representing the ethnic groups that fought to a bitter stalemate in the war. Candidates are elected directly, and a member of each ethnic group is assured of winning a presidential seat, with the chairmanship rotating every eight months. There are also three Parliaments, 11 prime ministers, and as many regional and local governments.
It is, in short, a precarious system — and state — with plenty of divisions for Russia to exploit as it tries to amplify its influence on Europe’s southeastern periphery while sending spies with lethal chemicals to the West. Mr. Dodik, who already declared the country’s Serb autonomous region to be independent, seems only too happy to oblige.
Mr. Dodik, discredited by corruption scandals and hate speech against the country’s Muslims, badly needs Mr. Putin’s support to win, given the popularity of Russia among ethnic Serbs.
In return, the Kremlin sees in Mr. Dodik an opportunity to destabilize Bosnia’s institutions, short of actually destroying them and possibly setting off a conflict, analysts say. For Russia, the volatility of Bosnian politics represents another opportunity for the Kremlin to meddle in the Balkans, they say.
“Russia does not want to be dragged into a war that it does not want by Dodik,” said Dimitar Bechev, an expert on Russia’s influence in the Balkans.
What it wants from its proxies like Mr. Dodik and increasingly Mr. Covic, the Croat incumbent for the presidency, is to maintain a degree of chaos that keeps the European Union concerned and stretched on multiple fronts in the Balkans, Mr. Bechev said.
Another of those fronts has been in Macedonia, where a disinformation campaign directed by Russian-backed groups, and Europe’s far-right supporters of the country’s nationalists, attempted to derail a referendum on a name change that would open the way for the country to join NATO and the European Union. That vote ended inconclusively at the end of last month.
As far as Bosnia goes, Mr. Putin has met twice this year with Mr. Dodik and eight times since March 2011, according to local news reports. He did not support Mr. Dodik’s most aggressive gesture — a thinly veiled attempt in 2016 at an independence referendum for the country’s Serb region.
For the Bosnian Muslim spot in the presidency, Sefik Dzaferovic, the candidate of the community’s biggest party, the Party of Democratic Acation, is expected to win. He is a loyal follower of the party’s leader, Bakir Izetbegovic, who has served two terms and could not run for the third. He is expected to wield influence over Mr. Dzafarovic, who has campaigned for a more centralized, integrated Bosnia within its internationally recognized borders.
Since 1996, the country has held elections every four years, without major outbursts of violence. During previous elections, voters have transformed the threat of renewed conflict into pressure on politicians to compromise in forming governments.
But this campaign has been nasty. Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog, reported on Thursday that the race had seen a record number of campaign violations, vote-buying efforts, instances of hate speech and abuse of public money for electioneering. The group accused Mr. Dodik of threatening public employees with dismissal if they voted for a rival.
Local news media have also reported on an elaborate plan to manipulate absentee ballots to lift the number of votes for Serb and Croat candidates across the country. More than 500 people have filed a complaint to the Central Election Commission that their identity has been stolen and their ballots forged.
Both Mr. Dodik and Mr. Covic are strongman leaders who want to further divide the country into ethnic enclaves. Mr. Covic, whose bid for re-election is backed by the Croatian government in Zagreb, also won the election for the Croat presidential seat in 2002, but was removed from office three years later by the international high representative in the country, Paddy Ashdown, for abuse of power and position.
The Croats have long been itching to break with the Muslim federation and, like the Serbs, gain their own entity.
The divisions have left the country far from joining the 28-member European Union, despite the bloc’s deep involvement in the running of Bosnia.
The country failed to gain candidate status because of political bickering over the filling out of a simple questionnaire that the E.U. uses to assess whether a country meets the requirements for applying to join.
Alida Vracic, a political scientist and executive director of a local think tank, Populari, said politicians have been stoking fears of an armed conflict for decades in order to divert attention from corrupt practices, a collapsed health system and a bankrupt pension fund.
“If the country is always on the brink of war and falling apart, then all they have to promise in exchange for votes is that they won’t go to war,” Ms. Vracic said. “They don’t have to talk about ways to tackle water shortages, electricity cuts, decaying sewage systems and air pollution that is making people ill.”
Bosnia’s infrastructure is crumbling despite millions of dollars of international funds to repair and upgrade it after the war ended. The country tops the list of unemployment rates in Europe. It currently stands at 25 percent and at nearly 50 percent among the country’s youth.
Smaller civic parties, addressing these issues and advocating coexistence have a chance to break the nationalists’ grip on power on the local level. Ms. Vracic, however, does not expect much positive change after the election because the electorate is in “collective depression.”
“Citizens have grown out of the habit of demanding basic rights and services that make life livable,” Ms. Vracic said.
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