Secretary of State Warren Christopher's decision to hold the Bosnian elections on schedule is a brave gamble.
The Sept. 14 election date fits the American deadline for NATO withdrawal at the end of the year. It does not, however, allow time for creation of new multiethnic political parties or for resettling refugees still adrift from their homes after war and ethnic cleansing. Even with the secretary's assurances of a more-robust NATO presence, the hot-potato hand-off between NATO and slow-starting international police monitors will not ensure safe refugee returns between now and then.
Forging ahead with the elections makes sense if events have to be squeezed into the self-proclaimed year-end NATO departure. Yet it is widely assumed that an international security force will remain in Bosnia well into 1997 - with national contingents or the new all-European unit of NATO - if only to avoid a resumption of the fighting. Now that the American "forced entry" is complete, the question remains why one should hurry on with the elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is supposed to certify that a vote can be held "without fear or intimidation." A wishful certification will not redeem the West's tarnished reputation in the Balkans.
Secretary Christopher can muster some arguments, nonetheless. The Sept. 14 deadline was set by all parties at Dayton, for better or worse, and maintaining the momentum of the treaty process has some value to other issues of compliance. Elections will bring an observational army of civilian monitors to Bosnia, and NATO will be forced to take more-active measures to ensure their safety. NATO's previous reticence - policing the lines of separation, but not venturing afield into the Republika Srpska or the Muslim-Croat Federation - cannot continue.
Where to vote remains a problem. The Dayton accords provide that refugees should return home and vote in their original place of residence, but few will be able to return safely. Absentee ballots can be cast. If an accurate count is managed, Muslim refugees unable to reclaim their homes in the Drina Valley will still have some voice in who represents their native area. Even having to count Muslim ballots will be a slap in the face to Serbian separatists who thought they were achieving a Muslim-free zone.
If there is any hope of knitting together the unraveled strands of Bosnia's political institutions, it is better done while there is still an American presence to urge things on. The Dayton agreement calls for Bosnian institutions to function under extremely difficult rules. The Bosnian presidency can act only by consensus on any matter of "vital interest." The legislature is subject to a similar ethnic veto. It will require continual outside presence to induce the rival representatives to work together.
A 1996 Bosnian national election will call on each group to choose leaders willing to govern in a troika. Sending leaders to a central Bosnian government is a repudiation of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's desire for complete independence. To prevent the secession of the Bosnian Serbs and Croats to join their respective ethno-patrons across the border, it is important to attempt some working form of central government.
Christopher may also seek comfort from the denouement of the civil war in Cambodia. The United Nations went ahead with national elections even though it had not succeeded in getting the parties to fully disarm. What's more, the Khmer Rouge made balloting impossible in northern areas.
The hope in Cambodia was that the Khmer Rouge's aloofness from the electoral process would be discrediting. That proved to be true. To everyone's surprise, the Khmer Rouge did not try to disrupt the election in non-Khmer Rouge areas through military action. Perhaps even the Khmer Rouge realized that the act of balloting can be inspirational for civilians seeking a return to normal life.
Of course, elections are not always liberalizing. Bosnia's elections in the autumn of 1990 brought to the fore intemperate Muslim, Serb, and Croat political forces. The need to win elections was one of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's motives in fanning Serb nationalism. As Americans learned in the 18th century, a workable democracy depends as much on party structure and civil comity as on formal constitutions.
We should also be chastened by the postponement of elections within the Muslim-Croat federation. The federation has not really functioned since its creation on paper in the spring of 1994. The European Union administrator of Mostar, Hans Koschnick, resigned in despair last April after Bosnian Croats and Muslims continued their intramural violence. The federation elections scheduled for May have now been postponed to June 30.
If Mr. Karadzic tries to run in the Bosnian elections, NATO will have a showdown it cannot avoid. Karadzic remains an indicted war criminal, and the Dayton accords forbid defendants indicted by the tribunal in The Hague from holding political office "in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina." Even skeptics may find that elections will serve the purpose of forcing NATO's hand to dislodge Karadzic from leadership.
* Ruth Wedgwood is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of law at Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn.