Saving Bosnia From US Political Games

A number of obstacles and unresolved problems remain

Relatively little attention has been paid to events in Bosnia-Herzegovina since the arrival of the NATO-led implementation force (IFOR). This may be good news because the killing and human deprivation that attracted so much attention have ceased with the advent of the peacekeepers.

But we are now rapidly approaching a moment when monumental decisions must be made about the future of Bosnia. The original Clinton administration deadline for United States troop withdrawal is Dec. 20. To maintain the gains achieved over the past year and secure peace and stability, NATO must be prepared to do more, not less, in the region. The US must take the lead in establishing a follow-on force to IFOR.

Such a bold effort requires strong presidential leadership and the support of Congress. Yet President Clinton has done almost nothing to make his case to the American people. He has not made even a commitment to a US role in such a force despite predictions by experts, including Dayton accord architect Richard Holbrooke, that chaos could resume and civilian programs could fail in the absence of an external military presence in Bosnia. While the president remains silent, thousands of US troops will soon arrive to provide cover for those forces slated to leave Bosnia at the end of the year.

It seems as if the president is hoping to punt this issue beyond the November elections. Doing so courts disaster. He leaves our allies adrift and sends confusing signals to the parties in Bosnia. Now is the time for the president to advocate a central US role in a continuing NATO mission in Bosnia. Americans must understand that peace in the Balkans is critical to European stability and that a stable Europe directly impacts American trade, travel, and prosperity.

With so much at stake, we must look carefully at the challenges in Bosnia. On Sept. 14, Bosnians elected officials to new government institutions in both the national government and the two entities, the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Republika Srpska. While there appears to be a loose consensus that no massive fraud was witnessed on election day, observers cited numerous violations that led them to doubt the fairness of those elections. Although certified by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the elections were not declared "free and fair."

The most common criticism of the elections is that they bestowed legitimacy on nationalist and separatist candidates who espouse partition rather than a unified multi-ethnic state - a goal embedded in the Dayton accord. Indeed, the results indicate that the nationalist parties won overwhelmingly and that opposition, moderate, or multi-ethnic parties and candidates did worse than in the 1990 elections.

On the positive side, opposition parties in Bosnia will now be at the table and will have a voice on matters before them. The elections may have created new competing power centers - a potential step toward achieving political pluralism. The process of reconciling differences among the ethnic groups and promoting democracy within and among the entities will be long and difficult.

Clearly, the situation in Bosnia is far better today than it was a year ago, when ethnic killings, personal hardships, and deprivation were rampant. No one should expect instant gratification from the elections or that cooperation, harmony, or stability can or will develop quickly. A number of obstacles and unresolved problems remain:

*The postponed municipal elections must still be scheduled. It is not clear whether electoral conditions, specifically registration standards that permit voters to cast their ballots in places where they never lived but intend to reside, will be modified or retained.

*There has been little progress in arbitrating the strategic, contested area around Brcko.

*Freedom of movement across entity lines is dangerous, and de facto separation is progressing daily.

*The federation holds promise, but Muslim and Croat members are at loggerheads and have developed little effective military cooperation.

*Joint institutions of government and the economy have yet to be developed.

*Progress in prosecuting indicted war criminals has been sluggish.

*The International Police Task Force (IPTF), under the auspices of the United Nations, provides little confidence that law and order will be administered impartially and effectively. If IFOR withdraws, can the police enforce Dayton requirements?

*The arms control agreement has succeeded in the cantonment of most, but not all, major weapons. Few have been destroyed or disposed. If IFOR leaves, who will ensure that these weapons will remain in their depots?

*There is little tolerance for an independent media and the growth of the independent sector by the political leadership in Bosnia, Serbia, or even Croatia.

The task ahead is monumental, the obstacles are enormous, and challenges are unique, but achieving peace and stability in the Balkans is by no means hopeless if the US provides strong leadership now.

*US Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana is a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations.

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