Don't Give Nationalists More Time in Bosnia

Delaying September elections will only consolidate partition

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke's mission to Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia underscored the effort the United States is making to create the necessary conditions for the scheduled Sept. 14 elections. Ending the party-leadership role of indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic eliminates a major impediment to the electoral process in the Srpska Republic.

Holbrooke's successful negotiations are only one of many actions being taken to create the conditions needed for the elections. Still, many remain convinced that, whatever progress is made, the elections should be delayed. Their fear is that the elections will complicate efforts to encourage reconciliation by reinforcing the apparent prevailing sentiment in favor of partition.

This misses the larger and more important point: The September elections are a means to an end. Timely elections will strengthen the peace by creating the institutions necessary for reconciliation. Conversely, delay will enable nationalist forces to use fear and lingering hatred to reinforce support for a divided Bosnian state.

I have observed and participated in many elections, some critically flawed and the majority not. Most express the peoples' will and are an accurate snapshot of a moment in history. The snapshot of today's Bosnia will likely produce an endorsement of nationalist-based politics. Realistically, an election held a year from now would do the same thing without the new government institutions prescribed by the Dayton accords.

The electoral process will produce national-and local-government institutions whose very existence will provide the best chance Bosnia's ethnic groups have for reconciliation. At the national level, the elections will establish a multiethnic, three-person presidency and a national assembly in which all three ethnic groups, and, potentially, political parties that support a multiethnic Bosnia, will be represented. The multiethnic government conceived of in Dayton will be brought to fruition by these elections.

We should listen to the leaders of the multi-ethnic parties in Bosnia. They want elections to be held as scheduled because otherwise they might be doomed to permanent silent-minority status. They know their chances are better now than they would be if nationalist forces have even more time to consolidate their control.

Bosnia's citizens recognize the elections' importance. According to a recent survey conducted by the US Information Agency, most plan to vote and think the election will be free and fair. In the end, the elections' credibility will largely depend on how it is viewed by the participants. We cannot allow the good to become a victim of the perfect. The international community must continue to wield the levers offered by the Dayton agreement to keep the extremists at bay and to marginalize their influence. US policy continues to be that indicted war criminals must be out of office, out of influence, and in The Hague. Much is being done to create conditions on the ground that will allow candidates to campaign freely in all regions and to have access to the media, and for citizens to vote freely. The international community is obliged to ensure that those elected are allowed to assume office and exercise the authority granted them by the relevant constitutional document.

While the brutal conflict of the last three years makes the warring parties' desire for separation understandable, it cannot be allowed to cause the collapse of the Bosnian state. That could happen if any of the factions attempts a unilateral declaration of independence or chooses to align itself with another of the region's powers. The international community is in a stronger position to prevent this if the multiethnic national government conceived in Dayton is elected on time.

The Dayton provisions constitute an important innovation in crisis resolution. They anticipated the centrifugal forces that operate in a devastated new nation following a conflict. And they impose structures designed to thwart those forces.

Strong human rights provisions are one such counterforce, as are the requirements that the rule of law be upheld, war crimes punished, and all forms of impunity rejected. But strong governmental institutions that force cooperation are equally important.

When the international community settled the Cyprus conflict 20 years ago, these devices did not exist. The United Nations created a cease-fire line and, as in Bosnia, ethnic migration started immediately. But without a Dayton-like framework for reconciliation, the partition of Cyprus grew more intractable with each passing year. This is a problem for Turkish and Greek Cypriots today because normal economic and political relationships are difficult.

A small country finds it more difficult to make it in the global economy when it cannot maximize its potential. This is why the international community still owes the people of Cyprus a continuing effort to resolve the dispute. But because Cyprus did not benefit from a Dayton-like strategy, the damage will be all the more difficult to repair. In Bosnia, too, economic revitalization is critical to the success of the Dayton accords and the prospects for lasting peace. Across all three ethnic groups, economic problems and unemployment are cited as the most important issues the country faces. A return to economic normalcy will bring the added and important benefit of renewing economic ties across ethnic lines. Economic-revitalization programs supported by USAID and others will help make this a reality.

The conditions for holding elections in Bosnia are not perfect, although the work being done between now and Sept. 14 will improve them. But delay will not produce a better result and, worse, may cause exactly what the well-motivated critics of September elections wish to avoid - the permanent partition of Bosnia.

*J. Brian Atwood is administrator of the US Agency for International Development.

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