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Press Review: Is Bosnia Ready to Vote?

Prague, June 13 (RFE/RL) -- Western newspapers are looking at Bosnia as the conference to review the Dayton peace accord gets under way in Florence today. The conference is expected to set a date for elections in Bosnia, and review implementation of the peace accord so far. Comment focuses on whether conditions for holding free and fair elections exist in Bosnia.

In today's British Daily Telegraph, Robert Fox writes: "the success of the conference...will largely depend on whether it decides tomorrow that nationwide elections can go ahead." He says: "Much pressure is expected to be exerted on the Serbs during the Florence talks to surrender (Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan) Karadzic and (Ratko) Mladic for trial. They are seen as a major obstacle to the elections achieving any success. It is feared that both men could turn polls into a popularity referendum."

In today's London Times, Carl Bildt, the international official in charge of implementing Dayton's civilian side, argues that Bosnia can have free elections. He asks: "Is Dayton a failure? Has the peace process stalled in Bosnia?" Bildt says one way of answering is to "compare the newspaper headlines of today with those of a year ago. Today I read of disappointments with the peace process, impatience with the pace of economic reconstruction....But a year ago this week, the top news stories were of U.N. peacekeepers being held hostage, of the shelling of Sarajevo intensifying..." He argues that now "hope is in the air" across Bosnia now.

Bildt admits "there is still a very long way to go, further than I had hoped six months into the process." But he says: "the worst possible response would be to run up the white flag, say it is all far-too difficult, and announce now that there is no point in going through with the elections." Bildt says he is determined that Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, both indicted war criminals, should be tried. In his words: "For them, all roads lead to The Hague, and the sooner the better." Bildt acknowledges the possibility that conditions will not be ripe for the elections, but expresses confidence they will be held on schedule. He writes: "It is...vital that people have the opportunity to choose their own representatives, to create a new legitimacy. But even more pressing is the task of creating joint institutions which are the only way of bringing the country together again after years of war."

Other commentators are less confident. Thomas L. Friedman, in today's New York Times, maintains it is a "dangerous illusion" to believe conditions for free and fair elections can be created by September. As he puts it: "The reason conditions don't exist now for fair elections is not because of a few flaws that can be quickly patched up. It is because of a fundamental flaw: Too many people in Bosnia do not want to live together any longer." Friedman questions: "So why is the Clinton team insisting on elections?" He notes: "Elections were supposed to be the bridge from partition to unification....some U.S. officials want to hold elections even if conditions aren't perfect, because they believe that a unified Bosnia is most consistent with U.S. ideals (which is true) and that most people prefer it (which is dubious)."

Friedman continues: "By holding elections, no matter how flawed, the Clinton team is positioning itself to say to the Muslims that it tried its best to unify the country and is now leaving." He concludes: "I believe elections will not unify Bosnia. Elections tend to expose divisions, not heal them. It is usually a political deal, based on the balance of power, between the winners and losers of a civil war that ends a conflict - not an election."

In a news analysis in today's Washington Post, John Pomfret writes: "the wisdom of holding an election so soon is hotly debated in Bosnia." Pomfret maintains: "Bosnia's planned elections are becoming a tool of the same nationalist parties that had plunged this country into war. Instead of acting as a lever to oust those nationalists from power, officials say, the elections risk cementing their hold on Bosnia - and therefore partitioning the country into two or even three states." He continues: "Many Bosnian and Western officials argue that what is needed to counter this trend is a fundamental change in the way the electoral campaign is being carried out. They contend that the media must be opened up to opposition parties, war criminals taken off the streets and delivered to the U.N. war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, and refugees allowed to return to their home towns to vote." Pomfret says: "While some officials have called for a delay in the election, others have said there should be no change, just better implementation of the Dayton accord."

Jonathan Steele, writing in today's British daily, The Guardian, points out that there are different views within Bosnia on whether the elections should go ahead. He says: "For those opposition parties which stand for a re-united country, it is a hard dilemma. Most would like the elections to go ahead. Some fear that if they are delayed once, it may be forever. Others argue that the election provides a civic space within which pluralist politics can revive after the vacuum of war." Steele proposes: "The best way to resolve the dilemma would be to link the poll to the return of refugees. Let the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) declare that elections can be held only in those municipalities where refugees can start going home, and let IFOR come out of its barracks and supply the necessary protection. This would give credibility to the election exercise, show that the international community does not accept permanent partition, and put the victims of the war in centre stage again."

"Is Bosnia's glass half full or half empty?" begins an editorial in today's Guardian. "Today's Dayton 'mid-term review' conference in Florence will accentuate the positive." The Guardian says the message will be: "things are going quite well under the circumstances, and don't expect too much." The editorial says: "There is good news on the military side of Dayton....On Dayton's harder, civilian parts, assessments are much more grim." It notes: "In both the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska, little progress has been made on scouring media access and freedoms, vital if free and fair elections...are to be held on schedule." The paper maintains: "Bosnia's democracy, officials concede helpfully, will be a rough and ready one." The Guardian concludes: "Bosnia has long gone off our TV screens and Florence may look like another conference where a confused world tries to contain a conflict it is not bold enough to halt. Yet this review should be a useful reminder that stopping a war and building a lasting peace are not the same things."