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Bosnia: Choices Limited In Bosnian Serb Election Campaign

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prnjavor, Bosnia; 12 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- In Prnjavor in the heartland of Republika Srpska, as throughout Bosnia, the election campaign for Saturday's presidential, parliamentary and regional elections has been waged largely in a war of posters plastered over walls, lampposts, tree trunks and shop windows.

Candidates have made few campaign appearances. The local news media until very recently have devoted almost all their attention to the ruling Serbian Democratic Party -- at the expense of the opposition.

Many registered voters remain uncertain or even confused as to who to vote for.

"What is the point?" asks Dragan, an 18-year-old Serb refugee from Croat administered Jajce. "The parties here are all the same, all nationalist."

Big color portraits of indicted war criminal and former Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) leader Radovan Karadzic, in violation of the Dayton accords and despite repeated warnings from the international community, are ubiquitous in Prnjavor. Posters depicting the current SDS candidates, though fewer in number, nevertheless contain a quote from Karadzic, such as "We have won; let's start building." Two days ago, the SDS under international pressure finally issued a ban on displaying Karadzic's picture.

SDS' main ally, the Radical Party of ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, has made a key part of his campaign strategy strongly-worded attacks against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and by inference the main Bosnian Serb opposition party, the Alliance for Peace and Progress. At a recent campaign appearance in the main square of Mrkonjic Grad, Seselj devoted a quarter of an hour to attacking Milosevic before launching into a diatribe against U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Dayton accords.

Most ubiquitous of all are posters of Serbian commando leader Zeljko Raznjatovic, better known as Arkan, leader of the Serbian Unity Party. Among the slogans on his posters are: "We've kept our promise" and "Brcko is and remains Serbian"

Arkan is wanted by Interpol in connection with a bank robbery in Sweden. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees holds Arkan responsible for the murders of numerous Bosnian civilians. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said last week it provided Arkan's party with some funding as part of the organization's financing of the election campaign since Arkan has not been indicted for war crimes by the International Tribunal in the Hague. Arkan is not a resident of Bosnia, and is not running for office but he has been campaigning for his party's candidates.

In contrast to the frequency of depictions of Karadzic, Arkan, Seselj and other nationalists and radicals, posters of the opposition Alliance for Peace and Progress (SMP), are far less visible in Prnjavor. Nevertheless, judging by the big turn-out and friendly reception the Alliance received at a recent rally, Karadzic's successors and allies could find themselves in for a surprise when the results of Saturday's elections are counted.

The alliance is a coalition of five left of center parties: the Socialist Party, led by former Banja Luka mayor Zivko Radisic; the Independent Social Democrats; the Yugoslav Union of the Left; the Social Liberal Party; and the New Radical Party. The alliance is supported by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his wife, who heads the Yugoslav Union of the Left in Belgrade.

The Alliance's paid campaign advertisements in the Bosnian Serb press present a picture of relative moderation, calling for respect for the Dayton accords and for the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms, as well as resolution of the plight of refugees, assurances that Republika Srpska will become a modern, democratic state with the rule of law, as well as eventual unification of the Bosnian Serb entity with Yugoslavia.

The campaign speeches by Alliance leaders at their rally on a recent rainy evening in Prnjavor backed these demands up. By the standards of Republika Srpska, they were moderate. They seemed well-received by the more than 500 people who crowded into the town's house of culture.

Momir Lavic, a Socialist Party activist from Prnjavor and candidate for deputy in the National Assembly of Republika Srpska, accused the leadership of being a clique of greedy war profiteers and denounced Seselj for acting irresponsibly by harming Republika Srpska's image abroad.

Local Alliance candidate, Zikan Zivojnik-Kuzmanovic, told the rally: "We must believe in democracy, the rule of law, and social security, and that we will again be a part of Yugoslavia and Serbia."

Alliance chairman Zivko Radisic in a reference to last year's defeat of Bosnian Serb forces during the final Croat/Muslim offensive, expressed relief that the rally could be held in Prnjavor at all rather than "somewhere on the other side of the Drina," the river that forms the border between Republika Srpska and Serbia. Radisic predicted Saturday's elections will constitute a first step in establishing a united Serbian state.

"That is what we want," Radisic says. "And no one is going to stop us."

The ruling SDS would lose considerable authority in the event of a merger with Yugoslavia.

While Radisic was speaking, the lights went out and the rally was plunged into ten minutes of darkness. But Radisic kept talking without the aid of a public address system.

Banja Luka University professor Branko Dokic, who is deputy chairman of the Party of Independent Social Democrats and Alliance candidate for the Bosnia Herzegovina House of Representatives, in a lengthy, improvised speech also touched on the Drina river and eventual reunification with Yugoslavia.

"We do not want to drink the Drina, we want to bridge it, so that it instead of dividing, it will combine two Serbian states into one," he said. Dokic told the rally the elections and their aftermath represent a new struggle for Republika Srpska.

"We do not want to hurl grenades or shoot; rather we must lead this struggle with wisdom and diplomacy," Dokic told his audience, adding, "This can only be accomplished by people who are uncompromised and untarnished. This cannot be done by those who are under investigation and betrayed their nation" -- a clear reference to the SDS.

That said, Dokic accused the SDS of showing poor leadership resulting in what he describes as the "humiliation and virtual defeat" of the Bosnian Serb military last year, including the loss to the Muslim/Croat federation of about one quarter of Bosnia's territory. He said the loss was not due to a lack of bravery or motivation but resulted from the Bosnian Serb troops having had nothing with which to defend themselves.

Dokic also holds the Bosnian Serb/SDS leadership responsible for the more than 2,000 deaths of Serb soldiers and civilians during last year's Croat/Muslim offensive and for the loss of 300 tons of undeclared Bosnian Serb munitions, confiscated and destroyed last month by IFOR. He told the gathering that "victory by S.D.S. could lead to further fighting that would spell the end of Republika Srpska."

He said the current leadership has lost whatever credibility it had, could never again mobilize the nation and lacks the trust of the international community. The only way, he says, to have the international community on the Bosnian Serbs' side, is to have new people leading Republika Srpska. He dismissed as sheer nonsense SDS warnings that voting for the opposition would result in a Muslim majority in the Bosnia-Herzegovina parliament.

Dokic did not spare the Bosnian Muslims from criticism either, telling his audience that Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic has been attending political rallies wearing a military uniform, a sure sign Dokic says, that the Muslims are preparing for war. While Izetbegovic occasionally wears a black beret with the fleur-de-lis emblem of Bosnia-Herzegovina, observers say he is not known to have been seen in public wearing a uniform.

But, in the closest thing to an olive branch, the Alliance candidate told the rally the relationship between Serb and Muslim lawmakers in the future parliament is solely dependent on voters on both sides of the inter-entity boundary electing parties capable of working together.