SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — This Saturday's elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina are the keystone of the US-sponsored peace process. If all goes well, the US and its partners hope a democratically elected government will bring a measure of stability to this war-torn country and region.
Relative stability would also allow many of the 60,000 troops in the NATO-led peace implementation force (IFOR) - including 16,000 Americans - to withdraw.
But there are already convincing signs that the elections may not solve all of Bosnia's troubles.
Although elections may help bring peace, even organizers admit voting won't be free and fair. And if "nationalists" win, they are likely to further separate Bosnia into different ethnic areas. So the country formed by elections could be short-lived. Here are some reasons:
How Bosnia split
In 1991, as communist Yugoslavia was breaking apart, Bosnia declared its independence from the Serb-dominated central government in Belgrade.
But the Serbs in Bosnia refused to live in a Muslim-dominated country. They began a war to create their own ethnically pure state and killed or expelled minorities in areas they controlled. A year later, Bosnian Croats also began a war for an ethnically pure state.
Dayton peace deal halts war
The 1995 accords hammered out in Dayton, Ohio, ended the fighting. But they also solidified the results of the ethnic purges. Through the accords, Bosnia has been divided into two ethnically distinct "entities."
One entity, which its Bosnian Serb leaders call Republica Srpska, is 49 percent of Bosnia. The other, the "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina," is a joint Croat-Muslim entity. Each one has much autonomy from the central government in Sarajevo.
What's on the ballot
The elections are being called the most complicated in history. Although there are just 2.9 million eligible voters, some 35,000 election workers and 1,200 foreign supervisors will staff 4,400 polling sites.
As designed in Dayton, the new national government is to have ethnic balance. For example, it will have three presidents, one from each ethnic group.
So Republica Srpska voters will choose the Serb member, and those in the Muslim-Croat Federation will pick the other two - one Muslim, one Croat.
Serb voters will also elect 14 members to the national House of Representatives, and Muslims and Croats will pick 28 members. All voters will choose government officials to run their own entities.
There are some 24,000 candidates from 60 parties, but most fall into two categories: nationalists, who favor post-election partitioning; and multiculturalists, who envision a unified state.
All three ethnic groups have nationalists and multiculturalists. And all are now governed by nationalists, who have harassed their opponents.
In Republica Srpska, for instance, the hard-line SDS party of former President Radovan Karadzic has been fined by election monitors for voter coercion.
SDA, the party of current Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, was fined for beating fellow-Muslim politician Haris Silajdzic, a leading multiculturalist.
Nationalism remains strong
Polls show Serb and Croat nationalist parties have firm support. A July poll found that 95 percent of Bosnian Serbs oppose a unified Bosnia - and are therefore likely to choose a nationalist candidate. Two-thirds of Croats also oppose a unified country. Only Muslims support unity.
Why elections aren't likely to be fair
The election atmosphere is a far cry from the "politically neutral environment" envisioned in Dayton. Freedom of movement and the press cannot be said to exist, and violence and intimidation have been on the rise.
The main flashpoints on election day are likely to be on the boundaries of the two entities. Many Muslims have registered to vote in Republica Srpska. But many Serbs, don't want Muslims to vote there, lest Muslims win. So IFOR troops are bracing for violence in cities such as Tuzla.
Why US pushed for an early vote
The US has considerable effort invested in Bosnia - and wants to avoid an embarrassing collapse. The Clinton administration orchestrated Dayton peace talks and led the move to deploy IFOR troops. But President Clinton also promised to have US troops home by December. In this election year, he is vulnerable to criticism if he fails to do so.
To keep order, however, the US and its allies want to hold the elections while IFOR is still on the ground. And while US officials admit that the vote won't be free and fair, they say it is a strong step toward peace.
After Voting, Peace Likely
The elections may not be free or fair, but some observers think war can be averted. Still, ethnic nationalism threatens to splinter Bosnia.
Prospects for ethnic division
*The Serb Republic's ruling party - which is also its most popular - vehemently opposes unity. Its leaders regularly talk of secession from Bosnia. The US said this week no such move will be allowed, but its unclear if the US and allies have the will to keep the Serbs in Bosnia.
*If current Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic doesn't win election to the three-member presidency by a sufficient margin, the Serb president could get the most votes and, therefore, become the presidency's chairman. This would bode ill for unity, as most Serbs want a separate nation.
*The international community has long used sanctions - or the threat of sanctions - to bring Serb-dominated Yugoslavia and other Serbs out of belligerence. But 10 days after the election, the UN resolution that permits sanctions must be lifted, meaning much leverage will be lost.
Prospects for peace
*All indications are that NATO - including some US troops - will stay longer than December, even if in a smaller number. This augers well for stability.
*If multicultural parties capture enough seats in the national and entity legislatures, they could offset the influence of the nationalists.
*The $400-million US-sponsored program called "equip and train" aims to get the Muslim-Croat Federation on military par with the Bosnian Serbs. If both sides are equally powerful, the program's sponsors assert, neither is likely to attack.