Bosnian Elections and the 'Karadzic Problem'

At last. The person in charge of organizing Bosnia's upcoming elections has said clearly that no party headed by indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic should be allowed to take part. American diplomat Robert Frowick, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Bosnia, said July 8 that he planned to ban the "Serbian Democratic Union" from the vote so long as Mr. Karadzic remains the party's president.

Ambassador Frowick cut through much of the diplomatic ambiguity - or appeasement - with which other (mostly European) diplomats have reacted to the disturbing fact of Karadzic's continuing sway in Bosnian-Serb society.

The American also raised the political stakes in Bosnia in the run-up to the nationwide elections that, according to the Dayton peace accord, should be held Sept. 14.

This upping of the ante in Bosnia raises an important question: Exactly what role do national elections play when, as in so many recent cases, they are part of a broader effort at resolving conflicts or effecting deep-seated political change?

Elections in Nicaragua and South Africa showed clearly that, when polling is part of a well-conceived, broader effort, it can play a considerable role in building the consensus for constructive change and can strengthen the trend away from repression and violence. In the occupied Palestinian lands, last January's poll strengthened President Yasser Arafat's mandate for peace and inaugurated an elected Palestinian legislature.

But elections are not always good for the cause of peace, as Israel's most recent vote showed. And when British Premier John Major proposed a new vote over Northern Ireland earlier this year, it brought howls of protest from those (including American officials) who saw it as threatening the carefully balanced series of political steps that had been agreed to in the province.

So what are the options for Bosnia's electoral effort? Some analysts say if Frowick and the OSCE persist in their threat to boycott Karadzic, then Karadzic's party - which enjoys the support of many, if not most, of Bosnia's ethnic Serbs - may boycott the vote altogether.

Would this be the least-desirable outcome? Or would announcing a postponement of the vote until the Karadzic issue is resolved be worse? Would making some concession to the indicted criminal and letting him continue to exercise his sway on the elections be worst of all?

These are not easy questions. Clearly, there are no good options. Any postponement of the vote seems bound to throw into jeopardy the end-of-year date for withdrawing American and other peacekeepers. (To its credit, the Clinton administration has already started giving some indications that this deadline is not final.)

But if the vote goes ahead while Karadzic continues to control one of the participating parties, then won't that give a veneer of international "legitimacy" to the ethnic cleansing and ethnic divisions that he has always spearheaded?

At Dayton, in addition to setting the "six-to-nine-month" deadline for holding the Bosnia-wide elections, the parties agreed to "create conditions in which free and fair elections can be held," and to "ensure freedom of expression and the press."

Is there anyone left who - based on all we know about Karadzic - expects that he will implement this?

The whole international community should surely support Frowick's firm stand on this issue. In addition, we all should redouble our efforts to resolve transatlantic differences, to increase the help we give to the civilians of Bosnia - and still, to bring Karadzic and other indicted war criminals to justice in The Hague.

*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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