Bosnia's election organizers pushed back the date for Bosnia's municipal elections this week and opened up a Pandora's box of questions about the possibility of extending the international community's presence in Bosnia into 1997.
Acknowledging that Bosnia's voter-registration process was deeply flawed, US Ambassador Robert Frowick, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called for Bosnia's Sept. 14 municipal elections to be postponed until the spring. However, the elections for federal and regional bodies - scheduled for the same day - will go ahead as planned.
"I have made a chairman's decision that it is not feasible to hold municipal elections on Sept. 14," Mr. Frowick told journalists earlier this week.
The call for a postponement of the municipal elections has led to questions about the West's plans for staying in Bosnia past December, when the Dayton peace accords say NATO forces should leave.
Senior NATO officials here are saying privately that a new force of approximately 20,000 soldiers will arrive in November. This new force would have a new name and and a new purpose separate from that of IFOR - the name given to NATO's 55,000-troop peace implementation force.
"A new NATO force will stay on here, absolutely," says one senior NATO official from the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps in Sarajevo. "NATO will be here well into 1997, with a more narrowly defined mission - to maintain the peace we have helped establish."
The question of what role the US may play here if a continued Western military presence remains is still murky.
The Pentagon announced this week that 3,000 to 5,000 American troops are in Hoenfels, Germany, preparing to be sent to Bosnia in October.
While the Pentagon has said this force will provide protection for a US drawdown here, the new troops are reported to have been told that they might be in Bosnia for up to a year, suggesting they could be part of a NATO follow-on force in Bosnia.
"There is no timetable yet established on when they will go or when they will come home," says Lt. Col. Rick Scott, a spokesman for the Pentagon. "There is no decision on any follow-on force, or whether this will be the follow-on force."
The issue of US troops staying on in Bosnia is a highly sensitive one during President Clinton's reelection campaign. Before committing American forces here last December, Clinton promised that they would be out in a year.
Observers here say the Pentagon will try to avoid saying how long NATO plans to stay in Bosnia until after the US elections.
US Undersecretary of State John Kornblum, who is traveling in the region this week, said the delay in Bosnia's municipal elections may have no connection to a possible extension of NATO's mandate here.
"The question of whether the municipal elections are going to be held - either this year or next year - is not going to be a defining factor," Mr. Kornblum said.
The OSCE's decision to postpone municipal elections came because of concerns about massive voter-registration irregularities.
On Thursday, Bosnia's two leading political parties called on Bosnian refugees to hold off casting their absentee ballots until issues surrounding the elections were clarified.
"It's the registration," says Haris Pinot, a deputy to former Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic. Mr. Pinot explains that the voter registration process was so corrupt that elections can only lead to the ethnic partition of Bosnia.
Faris Nanic, a member of the executive board of the ruling Party for Democratic Action, further pinpointed the problem.
"The OSCE has not addressed our primary demand - that the P2 form be dropped."
The P2 form allowed Bosnians to register to vote in places they never lived. OSCE elections monitors have accused authorities in Bosnian Serb territory and Yugoslavia of forcing Serbs to register to vote in certain strategic cities on the Serb side - rather than for their places of origin on the Muslim-Croat side - in order to secure Serb control of more than 49 percent of Bosnia.
Bosnian Serb authorities say openly they will secede from the rest of Bosnia after the elections. The OSCE's actions have not alleviated concerns among Bosnians that the Sept. 14 elections will lead to the eventual secession of the Serb entity from the rest of Bosnia.
Aleksa Buha, the so-called Bosnian Serb foreign minister, added fuel to the fire in a statement this week, saying: "The international community did not intend to divide Bosnia into three parts, but the course of developments is unstoppable and leading towards three separate national states."