Bosnia's Vote Won't Change Much

Efforts to build democracy must be sustained long after the polls close - or the separatists will solidify their fiefdoms

With elections scheduled for mid-September, Bosnia-Herzegovina is perched between reintegration and partition. Evidence increasingly indicates that the ballot imposed by the international community will not only strengthen the ethno-nationalist parties, but will legitimize the divisions between ethnically homogenous entities. In this scenario, a formidable long-range effort will be required to transform the country into a civil democracy.

Ten series of elections from the local to the central level are to be held despite the absence of proper conditions for a "free and fair" ballot, even by post-communist standards. Four major impediments will distort the process.

Little freedom of movement

First, despite the presence of an international peacekeeping force (IFOR), there is minimal freedom of movement for Bosnia's citizens. People are unable to return to their homes to vote. Indeed, the expulsion of Muslim families from the Serb entity continues to this day, while Serbs are still being hounded out of the Sarajevo suburbs.

Second, spokesmen for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) admit that inaccurate and outdated election lists are ripe for manipulation. In the words of Carl Bildt, the international community's representative, "We will have elections in a country where more than half the electorate have been displaced. We don't even know how many on the electoral lists no longer exist."

Third, the country lacks free and independent media that can reach all voters and objectively outline the programs of competing political parties. The key media outlets, particularly television, are in the hands of the ruling parties. The situation is especially tragic in the Serb entity and in the Croat quasi-state of Herceg-Bosna.

Fourth, the nonnationalist civic and multiethnic parties remain weak and underdeveloped. They face an uphill struggle since people have been primed to see nationalists as affording the best protection against ethnic foes.

Even if there is no major fraud or intimidation, and even if every polling station is protected by IFOR troops, the elections are likely to consolidate the three nationalist groupings - the Muslim Democratic Action Party (SDA), the Croatian Democratic Union (CDU), and the Serbian Democratic Party (SDP). Victory at the polls will bolster their hold over state institutions.

But this makes our long-term commitment to democracy-building more important, not less. It's the only way to undermine the authoritative system that we are unwittingly helping to sanction.

The three parties are not interested in a multiethnic state in which their hold on power and resources would be weakened. Although the institutions of a joint state will be established through the electoral process, the central inter-entity institutions, including the national presidency, are likely to remain hollow shells with the regional governments playing the most decisive political role.

It seems clear that neither IFOR nor the OSCE will engage in building a single state in Bosnia, especially as they continue to work closely with politicians who favor separation and ethnic exclusivity. Although the Dayton peace agreement was premised on rebuilding a single country, the international community has failed to tackle the transformation of the post-communist political structures. In this context, the resignation and replacement of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has become a red herring. Even without him, the choices in the Serb Republic are principally between SDP partitioners and socialist annexationists (promoted by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic). The Bosnian Serb prime minister, Gojko Klickovic, has stated that elections are important to help create a "Serb national state." The only differences between Serb leaders are over timetables and tactics for separation.

Separatism on all sides

In Herceg-Bosna, the situation is similar, except Croat nationalists make gestures toward federalism while maintaining separate political and economic structures. On the Muslim side of the Muslim-Croat Federation, the dominant SDA factions now appear to favor an ethnic state, largely as a reaction to Serb and Croat separatism.

At the grass-roots level, the three ethnic communities are not reintegrating and reconciling their disputes. Most families are either fearful of returning to their homes or are prevented from venturing into "enemy territory." Even in federation areas, tensions between Croats and Muslims persist, and many citizens prefer to live in ethnic ghettos or districts, as this provides a measure of security and stability.

West's aversion to risk

While Western governments affirm that they seek a unified, democratic Bosnia, they are more concerned about ensuring the cease-fire and avoiding casualties. They are unwilling to take risks that could threaten these goals and derail the Dayton timetable. Paradoxically, a postponement of the elections - in combination with more forceful measures to apprehend indicted war criminals, the allocation of significant resources to democracy-building and civic eduction, and the buttressing of a free media - would have a more stabilizing long-term impact. Short-term gains through elections and even a partial partition may plant the seeds for future grievances and conflicts.

Given the enormous obstacles in constructing a democratic federated Bosnia, it is imperative that our involvement be far-reaching and protracted, regardless of the upcoming elections. In line with this need, the Center for Strategic and International Studies is organizing a major forum in Sarajevo after the September ballot. Drawing activists from politics, media, education, civic organizations, women's groups, and small businesses from all regions of Bosnia, the forum plans to encourage and coordinate democratic initiatives in the years ahead.

The forum, we hope, will serve as a launching pad for more ambitious programs, even if work has to be conducted in two or three virtually separate entities. Only the promotion of civic values and democratic organizations, as opposed to nationalist authoritarianism and ethnic collectivism, will provide any hope for long-term stability, development, and reconciliation.

Bosnia-Herzegovina remains a critical test case for the international community. Let us hope that the appropriate resources will be allocated to this critical peace-building effort.

*Janusz Bugajski directs East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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