The West in Bosnia: Not for the Impatient

Bill Cohen has reason to be anxious. The plan endorsed by the new secretary of defense - to draw down NATO forces in Bosnia by November 1997 and exit by June 1998 - may be ambushed on both the civilian and military sides.

The first hurdle is the Bosnian local elections. The vote was delayed from September 1996 to July 1997 and, yet again, to September 1997. International election organizers are undertaking a new registration process to deter fraud. Independent television now broadcasts throughout Bosnia, a welcome alternative to nationalist propaganda.

But election delay carries a price. The Bosnian Serbs have shown machine-politics skill in subverting the election rules of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the quarter-century-old group set up by NATO and Warsaw Pact members. Last year, to handle an uprooted population, OSCE organizers planned to permit refugee balloting at any place of residence - past, current, or future. Serb politicians efficiently recruited "future residents" en masse for strategic Drina Valley towns, threatening to cement ethnic control brutally gained in the war. The OSCE called off the local elections.

Surprisingly, future-residence voting is back. The Serbs opposed any new lease on life for OSCE elections supervision. As a compromise, the OSCE will allow "future residents" to vote if there is a "nexus"; that is, a connection between the voter and the new town, such as a job offer or lodging with a family member. We'll see how those bona fides play out.

The elections pose a massive security challenge. Voters will cross the NATO-patrolled Inter-Entity Boundary Line - between Bosnia's sub-state entities, the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serbs' Republika Srpska - to register and cast their ballots. The physical dangers are obvious. If any Muslims win a municipal election in the Republika Srpska, it will take a strong security presence to allow a safe swearing-in.

The second challenge is Brcko, a hotly contested town on the Sava River considered essential by both the Bosnian Serbs and Muslim-Croat Federation. (Brcko divides Bosnian Serb territory.) Washington lawyer Roberts Owen sagely avoided an all-or-nothing outcome in his recent arbitral decision, appointing a Brcko administrator in the "gauleiter" style, who can issue edicts with the force of law. This model has worked in Eastern Slavonia, and avoids a crippling deference to nationalist government authorities.

More unarmed police monitors have been requested for Brcko, but military muscle remains key to refugee returns, commercial freedom of movement, and economic revival. The Brcko arrangement will be reviewed in March 1998, just a few months before NATO plans to be over the horizon.

THE third challenge for NATO is the new saber-rattling defense pact between the Bosnian Serbs and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, anointed on March 15 by the Bosnian Serb assembly.

This is a mockery of the Dayton accord, which allows Bosnia's two substate entities to enter into "special parallel relationships" with cross-border neighbors consistent with Bosnia's sovereignty.

The State Department belittles the defense pact as political grandstanding by a shaken Milosevic. The Yugoslav economy is still in the dumps, and Milosevic lost his nationalist credentials after Croatia's unopposed military sweep through the Krajina and Western Slavonia in 1995. Facing a national election, and more refugees from Eastern Slavonia, Milosevic is stooping to muscle-beach flexing to show solidarity with Serbs in the Bosnian "near abroad." In military terms the agreement can be taken as a Serb warning to the Muslims - for the "day after" the Americans leave.

These are not parties learning to live together. The Bosnia central government is barely functioning. A cabinet hasn't been appointed. The parliament meets on rare occasions. The central bank hasn't been formed, and the country is still using foreign currencies. With no banking apparatus, economic reconstruction is stymied.

NATO's signal achievement in Bosnia is worthy and historic - the presence of international troops on the boundary line between Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation has kept the peace. The deterrence of major fighting is not to be sniffed at in celebrating foreign policy victories.

But Bosnia isn't for the impatient. With the parties on the ground still mired in a churlish stand-off, the West's contingency planning has to look well into the future.

* Ruth Wedgwood is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of law at Yale University.

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