Tension mounted in Serb-held Bosnia late on Sept. 8, as troops of the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) turned back busloads of Bosnian Serbs converging on Banja Luka to attend a rally organized by allies of indicted war criminal and Serb strongman Radovan Karadzic.
Passengers threw stones at soldiers, and one poured gasoline on an SFOR vehicle. "SFOR deemed the busloads as a potential threat to peace and stability," says Maj. John Blakeley, an SFOR spokesman. "You don't bring sticks and rocks to a support rally for democratic elections, you bring balloons and signs."
The protesters were being bused to Banja Luka - controlled by Mr. Karadzic's rival, Serb President Biljana Plavsic - from those parts of the Serb Republic that remain under the control of Momcilio Krajisnik, an ally of Karadzic.
The situation in the northwestern Bosnian city was calm early Sept. 9, but SFOR was maintaining checkpoints there and had increased its presence around Pale, Karadzic's stronghold near Sarajevo.
The Sept. 8 events came just four days before internationally sponsored local elections begin, and are part of an ongoing power struggle here. The municipal vote is still scheduled to take place on Sept. 13 and 14. The elections, sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), will determine the composition of Bosnia's 119 municipal councils.
These councils have limited practical powers in the Muslim-Croat federation as well as in the Serb Republic. But the vote does represent a final opportunity to reverse the results of ethnic cleansing at the ballot box. Displaced persons had the option of registering to vote in their former home municipalities. Observers are closely watching more than a dozen "cleansed" municipalities whose governments may change hands.
Because most people are expected to vote along ethnic lines, top officials at the OSCE probably already know the results based on voter-registration figures.
"Large areas of Serb-inhabited territory were captured by the [Bosnian Croat army] in the closing phases of the war, but the Croats haven't been able to repopulate these areas enough to ensure victory in the elections," says Richard Potter of the British Embassy in Sarajevo.
Other areas that may change hands include formerly Muslim-majority towns like Srebrenica and Visegrad, mixed Croat-Muslim areas in central Bosnia, and bitterly divided communities like Brcko and Mostar.
Such turnovers present a difficult challenge to the international community. Newly elected officials may receive more than just a cool reception when they try to take office in an area cleansed by another ethnicity. Refugees trying to cross ethnic lines to their former homes have been attacked.
"The hard work [for the international community] doesn't end on election day; it begins then," says Chris Bennett of the International Crisis Group, an aid organization. "Because the international community has been unwilling to address many of the central problems in this country, it's going to be extremely difficult for the OSCE to install municipal councils in 'turnover' areas."
The 1995 Dayton agreement envisions the creation of a single multiethnic Bosnian state, and the joint institutions of a new national government were established after internationally sponsored general elections one year ago. But the three ethnically based nationalist parties that won the election are unable to work together. War criminals like Karadzic remain at large, and their political allies have attempted to oust President Plavsic.
"The elections are far less significant than this power struggle," Mr. Bennett says. "Whoever wins the municipalities in [the Serb Republic] will shift allegiance to the faction that wins this struggle. That had better not be Mr. Karadzic's crew if there's going to be any hope for this country."