Why Ballots Cast in Bosnian Villages May Influence US Presidential Race

On the eve of the Bosnia elections, a United States aircraft carrier battle group quietly steamed into the Adriatic Sea. Despite assertions that the conflicted region is "sufficiently democratic" for tomorrow's vote, the Clinton administration is taking no chances.

The Bosnian elections hold significant implications for Mr. Clinton as he runs for a second term. He is gambling that tough security measures will ensure relatively smooth voting.

Trouble-free elections would allow Clinton to claim the 1995 Dayton peace accords a success and to fulfill a pledge to bring home by year's end the 15,000 American troops stationed there as part of the NATO implementation force (IFOR). While many experts doubt Clinton will pull American troops out that soon, the pressure to make a decision could be put off until after the US elections.

"This is a measured strategy by Clinton to declare a foreign policy success," says Balkans expert Janusz Bugajski at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

On the other hand, widespread fraud, intimidation, and violence among Bosnia's Muslims, Croats, and Serbs would undermine the legitimacy of the races for a three-member presidency, a joint national legislature, and assemblies for the Muslim-Croat federation and Republika Srpska, the country's almost pure Serb half.

Such a development would play directly into the hands of Clinton's GOP foe, Bob Dole, who advocated a delay in the vote. Mr. Dole, sensing a foreign policy issue on which Clinton may be vulnerable, warns that the absence of free media, intimidation of opposition parties, and other problems will render the polls "a fraud with an American stamp of approval."

Fodder for debates

Should he prove right, Dole will be able to force Clinton to discuss openly an issue he has strenuously sought to avoid: whether he will withdraw US troops, which could open the door to renewed ethnic fighting, or give in to mounting pressure from the European allies to maintain some kind of post-IFOR American military presence in Bosnia in 1997.

"If there are highly convincing arguments to declare the elections invalid, then Clinton will have to engage Dole publicly now on what we do next," says Susan Woodward, a Balkan scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Agrees Stephen Hook, a foreign policy expert at Kent State University, in Ohio: "You have to look at this from the standpoint of Clinton's lead in the polls. Dole is looking for weaknesses in Clinton's domestic and foreign policies. Bosnia provides Dole with a potential opening."

The Bosnian elections and their outcome have implications beyond US presidential politics. They will be watched in many quarters as yardsticks by which to grade US leadership in diplomatic efforts to resolve the first major post-cold-war challenge to European security.

"As we move now to judging the success or failure of the Dayton process, it is the United States as the country which is really the catalyst for writing the Dayton agreement, for negotiating the Dayton agreement, which the allies look to," Thomas Longstreth, director of the Pentagon's Bosnia task force, told a congressional hearing on Wednesday.

Clinton sticks to schedule

US officials say that the Bosnian elections must be held in the time frame set by the Dayton accords - within six months of the December 1995 signing - to ensure the timely creation of the political institutions needed to promote reintegration. "These institutions will require practical, daily interaction among Bosnia's Muslims, Croats, and Serbs," writes Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser, in Wednesday's New York Times. "That is the best way to break the status quo of division, weaken the forces of extremism, and bring Bosnians together to rebuild their land."

But critics assert that the opposite will occur by holding the elections now.

Muslim, Croat, and Serb nationalists who have been in office since war erupted in April 1992 have gone to considerable lengths to ensure they retain power in the areas left under their sway. They have blocked independent media, freedom of movement, and the return of refugees. There also has been widespread intimidation of opposition parties. Indicted war criminals, including Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, continue to wield considerable influence.

Not only would the nationalists' re-elections perpetuate the ethnic divisions, critics argue, but Serb and Croat hard-liners openly vow to sabotage the functions of the political institutions for which they are running and merge their areas to neighboring Serbia and Croatia.

Such developments would not only show the US decision to hold the elections to have been a mistake, but ensure that whoever wins the US presidential contest will inherit an embroglio requiring some kind of American military presence to remain in Bosnia. To withdraw would trigger departures by other IFOR contingents, virtually guaranteeing a resumption of war.

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