Bosnia is about to occupy the world spotlight again, this time for a crucial exercise in peacemaking. On Saturday, Sept. 14, Muslims, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Serbs will cast their ballots for a three-member national presidency and separate Muslim-Croat and Bosnian Serb regional legislatures.
It's unclear whether the vote will lay a foundation for unified government, as hoped, or simply drive hostile ethnic communities even deeper into their segregated enclaves. Right now, the latter seems all too probable.
The months running up to the election have included glimmers of hope and glares of despair. Many Bosnians want a reunified country. They know it is possible for Serbs, Muslims, and Croats to live in peace. Moderate political groups espousing these views have been formed, but their voices have been muted - both through personal intimidation and official policy.
The nationalist parties, bred by the war, are entrenched. Opposition moderates needed access to independent media to let voters know what they stood for. But the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo fought to maintain a tightly controlled state system.
Voter registration has been a constant source of friction. Bosnian Serb officials used their large, floating refugee populations to stack the voting lists in towns they considered strategic. Registration scams finally forced election planners with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to postpone the balloting for municipal offices.
Also disturbing are some blatant breaches of the Dayton peace accord, which provided for the elections. In late August, a Muslim village near Tuzla was surrounded by a threatening band of Bosnian Serb police and irregulars. Soldiers from the international Implementation Force (IFOR) dispersed the Serbs. But the incident showed, again, how close violence is to the surface and how important the peacekeepers are.
Amid the turmoil, meanwhile, are reports of libraries trying to rebuild and hospitals getting back to normal operation.
Lasting normality could depend on just such efforts as the coming elections. At the least, they could erect a bare superstructure of democratic process. Bosnians, with the help of the international community, will have to continue the building far beyond the voting on Sept. 14.