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Western Press Review: Bosnia Elections Excite Hope, Skepticism

  • Don Hill

Prague, 15 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators watched elections in Bosnia over the weekend with interest -- and renewed hope for Balkan peace. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's trip to the Mideast also aroused mild, but reawakened hope.

FINANCIAL TIMES: The main nationalist parties regard the elections as a political battle for local control

In an analysis Guy Dinmore summarizes the Bosnian elections as follows: "Croat and Serb authorities were accused yesterday of trying to manipulate Bosnia's local elections, but international officials said the polls had gone smoothly overall the turnout was very high." Dinmore says: "While the international community views the elections as a vital step in the process of ethnic reintegration, the three main nationalist parties regard them as a political battle for local control of towns won and lost in the 1992-1995 civil war."

NEW YORK TIMES: Many returned for the first time to places from which they had been expelled

Chris Hedges wrote in an analysis that the election is unlikely to change the reality of Bosnian de facto partition. He wrote: "Escorted by NATO troops in armored vehicles, buses lurched and rolled out of Sarajevo early Saturday morning. They were taking Bosnian Muslims for a few emotional moments to villages in which they lived before the war, where they cast ballots and were then hustled hastily away. In Saturday's municipal elections, seen as a vital part of the Dayton peace accord, people across Bosnia voted in their prewar towns, many returning for the first time to places they were expelled from in the bitter conflict among Muslims, Serbs and Croats." Hedges said: "But the elections, which were postponed twice, appeared unlikely to alter Bosnia's partition into three antagonistic enclaves or to release the grip on power by nationalist hard-liners."

DIE WELT: Expellees can choose to vote where they live now

Boris Kalnoky comments today that one hopeful element is new common sense in the rules about where in Bosnia a voter may choose to cast his or her ballot. Kalnoky writes in the German newspaper: "A year ago the election failed because of massive attempts at manipulation on all sides. There was widespread misuse of the right of an elector to name a place where he or she wanted to live in future and to vote as a resident of that area."

The commentator says: "Under new rules drawn up by the election organizer, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), expellees can choose to vote where they now live if they can show that they have a good reason for remaining there -- such as family members or a job. Otherwise they vote where they once lived. This is important in the case for example of disputed places such as Brcko, held by the Serbs, where before the war there were mainly Moslems and Croats. The city is important for the Serb-held territory because it sits in a narrow corridor connecting the northern and southern Serb areas."

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: The elections may dramatically shuffle the ethnic makeup of towns and villages

Jeffrey Fleishman captures the full coloration of the mixed visions of the elections. He describes in a news analysis the energy and hope that voters brought to the polls, and also the symbols that show that recalcitrance is digging a formidable foundation. He writes: "Refugees from across this divided nation voted over the weekend in municipal elections that once again may dramatically shuffle the ethnic makeup of towns and villages demolished by years of bloodshed." He says: "The elections are crucial to the success of the Dayton peace accords, which call for the three sides to share a country that unraveled after communism was toppled seven years ago."

Then the writer looks into the mid distance, and reports: "Just beyond the voting tent, rain fell on stacks of lumber and piles of red roofing tiles, materials that will rebuild what the war has ruined and return thousands of Muslims to the Brcko region. The Serbs are raising their own red roofs in a complex real estate battle that keeps alive the ethnic cleansing campaigns that began several years ago."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Now is the time for bold and visible leadership

Columnist Jim Hoagland makes a connection today between peace efforts in the Mideast and elections in Bosnia. In neither situation, he writes, can the U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton afford to back off from U.S. involvement and commitment. Hoagland writes: "Clinton has rationed carefully his visible involvement in the two most volatile conflicts of his presidency, Bosnia and the Middle East. But turning points in both conflicts now demand a strong presidential commitment to halt the slide toward new hostilities. Mr. Clinton cannot simply walk away from these conflicts and let the warring sides stew in their own murderous juices, however tempting that course may seem."

Hoagland concludes: "He has resisted entanglement in big picture doctrines, preferring ad hoc approaches on foreign policy to abstract conceptualization. But now is the time for bold and visible leadership, working for change in the Middle East and continuity in Bosnia. This is the stuff of presidential legacies."

SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Messrs Netanyahu and Arafat promised to talk

Commentator Josef Joffe says that Mrs. Albright won a concession from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Liberation Organization President Yasser Arafat. They will talk. But unless they are willing to talk about issues they so far are treating as non-negotiable, talk itself will offer little. Here's how Joffe puts it: "Messrs Netanyahu and Arafat could not let their patron Madeleine Albright go home quite empty-handed, so they granted the secretary of state a minor victory. They promised to talk to each other, in Washington. As a result, back at home Madeleine Albright can announce that her trip did more than cost money. But neither Israel nor the Palestinians conceded anything substantial, merely agreeing to something -- their willingness to talk - which is in any case in their own interests.

"But it was Albright, and not some other Western foreign minister, who wrested this concession from Benjamin Netanyahu and Yassir Arafat. And agreeing on Washington as the venue for talks was a further compliment to the power which nobody dares really displease. Admittedly, Albright's satisfaction is clouded by something Netanyahu did to vex her some days ago. She had asked him quite explicitly to at least postpone any new settlements for a time. The prime minister's chief sharpshooter, David Bar-Ilan, came back with the ice-cold retort: 'No, we can no more freeze settlements than life itself.' "

Joffe concludes with this question: "If Netanyahu is unwilling to discuss the main issue, what is the point of talks?"

THE WASHINGTON POST: Saudis should cut financial support to terrorists and take part in the Arab Israeli economic conference

In addition to her frontal assault on barriers to peace in Palestine and Israel, Thomas W. Lippman writes today in Mrs. Albright is coming at the problem obliquely also. In Saudi Arabia, she sought Arab support for Israel and against terrorism. He says in a news analysis: "Hopscotching around Saudi Arabia before landing (in Jordan last) night, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright urged the Saudis and their smaller neighbors to stand fast in support for peace with Israel and to curtail financial support for terrorist groups."

Lippmann says she delivered two serious foreign policy messages: "The United States wants them to do more to cut off financial support to terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and it wants them to take part in the fourth annual Arab-Israeli economic conference, scheduled to be held in Qatar in November."