Serbs Seek Sovereignty via Vote

In Bosnia, voter registration shows ethnic divide and Bosnian Serb plans to secede and possibly join Serbia

The vision of the US-brokered Dayton peace accord is simple: To put war-torn Bosnia back together again, the accord would build up civic ties between neighbors of different ethnic backgrounds.

Nationwide elections slated for Sept. 14 are a key element of the accord, which was initialed in Dayton, Ohio, last year. But in the run-up to the elections, the vision of Dayton is increasingly threatened - and with it the Clinton administration's hopes for calm in the region.

Last week the people of Bosnia registered to vote. And a process that is a simple formality in stable democracies became fraught with fraud and used by Bosnian Serbs to try to cement their hold on the chunk of land they carved out of Bosnia during the four-year war.

Elections organizers are crying foul - though they plan to proceed with the vote - and Haris Silajdzic, the former Bosnian prime minister and sole voice for ethnic unity, has threatened to boycott the September vote.

"All parties engaged in the practice of electoral engineering," said Edward van Thijn, the chief election monitor. "Democracy does not mean parties should begin counting before the voting. That is democracy upside down."

The vote organizer, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), admits that local authorities in the Bosnian Serb republic intimidated thousands of Serb refugees into registering to vote in towns on the Serb side, rather than in the towns they fled during the war.

Ulterior Serb motives?

The voter registration statistics released by the OSCE reveal how radically ethnic cleansing has changed the map of Bosnia.

The vast majority - 214,741 - of displaced Bosnian Serbs have applied to vote in their new towns in the self-styled Bosnian Serb republic, while only 78,196 wanted absentee ballots to vote for candidates in the towns they fled.

The numbers suggest an effort by Serbs to solidify through elections their hold on 49 percent of Bosnia, in anticipation of a future secession of the Bosnian Serb state from the rest of the country.

The move would close the door for Bosnian Muslims and Croats hope to return to their former homes, which lie in the Bosnian Serb republic.

"Our dream is to unite with the Motherland. Why should we stay in Bosnia- Herzegovina if the Croats leave Bosnia, which I believe will happen," said Aleksa Buha, the head of the leading Bosnian Serb party, the Serb Democratic Party.

Muslim, Croat claims

The picture from the Muslim-Croat Bosnian Federation is nearly the opposite: While 59,473 registered to vote in their new homes on the Federation side, roughly three times that number - 187,414 - applied to vote by absentee ballot for their places of origin on the Serb side, from which they were driven by ethnic cleansing.

Observers interpret the numbers from the Federation to suggest that Muslims will try to win seats in their former towns on the Serb side in order to foil Serb plans to secede.

The voter registration process was reported to be rife with fraud.

Many Serb refugees report that they were only offered Form 2, which allows them to register to vote in their new homes on the Serb side of Bosnia.

The OSCE's Mr. Thijn reports that Serb refugees living the Serb-dominated rump Yugoslavia "were generally being discouraged or prevented" from voting for their places of origin in the Federation.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees observed several local humanitarian organizations, including the Bosnian Serb Red Cross, withholding humanitarian aid to Bosnian Serb refugees who didn't produce voter registration documents for strategic locations on the Serb side, including the towns of Zvornik, Brcko, and Srebrenica.

Dreaming of diversity

Muslims and Croats are also accused of manipulating the voter registration process. Croatia refused to give clearance to OSCE elections monitors to observe the registration process, Thijn said.

Dr. Silajdzic, the former Bosnian foreign minister, holds a vision for Bosnia similar to that of the Dayton accord. His party, the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, offers a platform of ethnic unity.

He says the elections organizers are acting to legitimize the genocide that took place in Bosnia by tolerating voting registration irregularities that seem likely to lead to a secession of the Bosnian Serbs from the rest of Bosnia.

"This registration process will be a consent to genocide," warned Silajdzic, in his party's headquarters on Tuesday. "The UN is responsible for the arms embargo, which led to the Bosnian genocide and ethnic cleansing. Now, the OSCE is responsible for legalizing that genocide."

Silajdzic proposes postponing the elections so that the voter registration process can be redone from scratch.

"Sarajevo has become a monoethnic city. We are proving [former Bosnian Serb leader Dr. Radovan] Karadzic right. And Bosnia's Muslims will become more nationalist, and more fascist."

With a tone of near desperation he says: "Our civilization has to maintain some minimum of justice."

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