As an election, the voting in Bosnia will have no lasting significance. The institutions it was meant to bring to life - a tripartite presidency, a parliament, a supreme court, central bank, and such - have little or no chance of emerging. However, as an event, the voting sets other things in motion and marks a sea change in the Western attitude toward the Yugoslavia problem.
The change is this: The West, in its zigzag way, had wanted to restore the unity of Bosnia; now, despite protestations to the contrary, it accepts that this is impossible. The aim must be to see that the division into Serb, Croat, and Bosnian Muslim entities proceeds without the killing that NATO stopped in 1995.
How not to live together
The circumstances of the election support this premise. Not only did nationalist and extremist elements set the tone but the general discourse revealed the sentiment that the ethnic communities do not want to live together.
The leaders of the Republika Srpska, the Serb Republic, one of the two entities composing the new state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, remain openly dedicated to their ultimate goal of union with Serbia proper.
The other entity, the Bosnian-Croatian Federation, is in confusion. Proclaimed in Washington at US urging two years ago, it exists only on paper. The Bosnian Croats pledged to dissolve their ministate, the "Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna," by Aug. 31. That was not done. The city of Mostar remains brutally split between Croats and Muslims despite years of special effort by the European community - and an election. Practically nothing has been done toward merging the working administrations of the three ethnic groups. The new Bosnia and Herzegovina has neither flag nor symbol. The entire infrastructure of agencies and institutions down to traffic rules and postal service must be shaped from scratch.
The new state's army, for instance, to be formed within three years, is totally boycotted by the Serbs. So great is the mistrust inside the federation that the Croats and Bosnian Muslims are to maintain separate ethnic battalions.
The logical conclusion would seem to be meltdown and resumption of the war, which would affect IFOR, the 55,000 strong NATO force in Bosnia and its 16,000 Americans. NATO defense ministers are now mulling this over - but not on the basis of so bleak a premise. They do not expect renewal of the conflict that raged in the former Yugoslavia for four long years. For one thing, the people are traumatized by war. Also, ethnic cleansing is done. And the main engines of violence, President Slobodan Milosevic, above all, and President Franjo Tudjman, can feel sure that the Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia they have been fighting for will, before too long, come to them in peace.
It would be foolish for Western leaders to assume concord. They calculate that an armed presence will be necessary after IFOR's mandate expires in December but that it need not be so large and so heavily armed. The new force, likely to remain for about a year, will be perhaps half the size. Instead of securing the territory with tanks and artillery it would act as a deterrent. No fear for the security of this operation; any aftershocks of the great conflict are likely to be small and local.
Biggest concern: refugees
As for the war criminals, even NATO's thin pretense of willingness to arrest them is not likely to last into the new era of quasi-sovereign Bosnian entities. Pursuing those guilty of violating international humanitarian law will have to be done by diplomacy, applying pressure and offering economic incentives to ethnic leaders.
Millions of refugees and displaced persons remain the greatest concern. The victims of ethnic cleansing will, by threat or despair, be kept from returning to their villages. Others face the ruins of their homes and livelihoods. The hope is that the hardships of political division be ameliorated by making Bosnia, indeed all of Yugoslavia, a common market. Massive foreign aid and investment are needed to create jobs, stimulate trade, and speed reconstruction - in other words, restore normality to blighted lives. After the past five years, that would be almost enough.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS News, currently writes on world affairs.