Six months after the signing of the Dayton peace accord, the leaders involved in trying to preserve the shaky peace in the Balkans gathered here to produce a report card on the progress of peace. Their verdict: Bosnian elections - which many see as critical to building a civil society in the war's aftermath - should go forward in September, despite evidence presented that conditions for free and fair elections do not yet exist.
The push for these elections is driven by the political demands of the countries providing troops for the NATO-led, 60,000-strong peacekeeping force. In particular, the Clinton administration, which is gearing up for the president's reelection campaign, sees Bosnian elections as an essential component of an exit strategy for American forces. Only after Bosnian elections can the US begin to withdraw its 19,000 troops.
A Swiss diplomat, requesting anonymity, said, "Clinton clearly doesn't want body bags in an election year."
Consequently, many recent NATO and international peacekeeper statements reflect a growing resignation to Bosnia's ethnic partition, and specifically to noncompliance by the Bosnian Serbs on the freedom of movement issue, the right of refugees to return to their former homes and villages, and on the turning-over of war criminals to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.
Bosnia's United Nations Ambassador, Mohammed Sacirbey, criticized the push to hold Bosnian elections before Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is arrested: "Free and fair elections are inconsistent and inconceivable as long as war criminals are free. If elections are held under the current conditions, the consequences would be even worse than not holding elections at all."
By trying to keep the US mission to Bosnia wrinkle-free until US elections, President Clinton could inherit a potentially more explosive Bosnia after December. Bosnian elections are likely to solidify gains made by ethnic cleansing. And with an estimated 3 million Bosnian refugees unable to return to their homes, the election results could be contested and lead to civil unrest.
But despite serious doubts about the integrity of the elections, those at the Florence conference showed striking consensus that elections should not be delayed past September. On the surface, it would appear that international consensus on holding early Bosnia elections signals international agreement that American troops can pull out of Bosnia soon after.
Some here speculate, however, that international consensus on the elections instead shows a willingness to let Clinton appear during his campaign as if he is aiming to pull US troops out of Bosnia by December. If he wins, he is then free to keep troops in Bosnia longer.
Indeed, a continued NATO presence in Bosnia is considered essential to ensuring the civilian part of the peacekeeping mission. Reconstruction programs are only beginning to show results. And after Bosnia's elections, it is expected that the Bosnian Federation government will require significant assistance and goading to stay on the road to peace.
The Florence meeting did achieve a significant success on one front: the signing of a long-debated regional arms control agreement, which was signed by Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Bosnian Serb sub-state, which calls itself the Republic of Srpska. It calls for reductions in heavy armaments, an enhanced weapons-destruction schedule, and provisions for ongoing monitoring.
US Acting Undersecretary of State John Kornblum was upbeat at the conference, praising its participants for agreeing to September elections in Bosnia and saying the arms-control agreement "represents the fact that the parties, and also Croatia and Serbia, are willing to enter into a long-term arms and stabilization regime."