Sarajevo, 11 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- In front of a noisy cafe in the old Turkish Bascarsija section of Sarajevo, a 20-year-old sales clerk pauses for a second to give her thoughts on this weekend's internationally-sponsored Bosnian general elections. She's terribly afraid, she says, because the last elections led to war and she fears these may do the same.
As Bosnians prepare to vote in some of the most complex elections ever organized, the mood in the Bosnian capital is of deep pessimism.
Jovo Jovanovic, a 56-year-old Serb who remained in Sarajevo throughout the war and is married to a Muslim woman -- and who considers himself a Bosnian patriot -- sums up the trepidation of most Sarajevans.
He is convinced that his fellow Serbs -- unlike himself -- will vote overwhelmingly for separatist Serb leaders in the Republika Srpska half of the country. And that in the Muslim-Croat federation, most Muslims (or Bosniaks, as they now prefer to be called) will vote for the ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA), while Croats will line up solidly behind the separatist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
"Unfortunately the majority will vote along ethnic lines and Bosnia will definitely be partitioned," he says.
This is exactly what the international community sought to avoid in the Dayton Accords, which put an end to 43 months of war and prescribed a unified Bosnia-Herzegovina for the future.
But now Sarajevans -- as well as many foreign observers -- fear the elections will put the final seal on the division of Bosnia by giving separatist Serbian leaders the sheen of electoral legitimacy.
Haris Silajdzic, the former Bosnian foreign minister, is running under the banner of the Party For Bosnia-Herzegovina. He's a Muslim dedicated to a secular unified state. He says he is opposed to the nationalist policies of Bosnia's Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic. These elections, Silajdzic says, legitimize the very people who fought so hard to destroy Bosnia.
Although Bosnian Serb leaders continue to pledge on the international stage to honor the Dayton Accords, their message for the domestic audience is quite different. Republika Srpska is now headed by a fervent nationalist, Biljana Plavsic, who replaced wartime leader Radovan Karadzic after he had been forced out by the international community.
Plavsic has pledged to continue Karadzic's aim of a separate, ethnically pure state. Election day, she has said, will mark the beginning of Serb independence, not reintegration into Bosnia, as foreseen by the Dayton Accords. (Just this week the international body organizing the elections, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, fined the hardline Serb Democratic Party, which rules the Serb sector, $50,000 for campaigning in favor of secession and union with Serbia.)
Such rhetoric -- which is carried by Bosnian Serb television easily received in Sarajevo -- strikes fear into the hearts of the city's predominant Muslim population.
Aisa Muzurovic, a 51-year-old Muslim seamstress, says she and her husband will vote for the SDA "out of revenge" because she sees Bosnian Serbs lining up so passionately behind their own nationalist leaders. Nijaz Kostovic, a 63-year-old Bosniak architect, says the Bosnian Serbs have left the Bosniaks no choice but to vote along ethnic lines.
One Western diplomat in Sarajevo predicts that a Bosnian Serb declaration of independence could come within months -- or even weeks -- after the election. This would be the most severe test of Western resolve yet in the torturous process of stopping the killing and trying to bring real peace to Bosnia.
Silajdzic is pessimistic that the international community will not be able to rise to the challenge.
Silajdzic questions how the international community will do anything to prevent the division of Bosnia on paper "when it hasn't done much to prevent the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina on the ground in blood."
Nerka Jonuz, a 38-year-old Muslim mother of four who plans to vote for Silajdzic's party, says "the only way to avoid war is if the ethnically-based parties do not win."
Bosnians are being asked to cast their ballots in what could well be among the most complex elections ever held. On Saturday, they will participate in six different elections:
For a three-member presidency of the country to be made up of one Bosniak, one Serb and one Croat.
For a national parliament.
For a parliament in the Muslim-Croat Federation.
For cantonal (provincial) assemblies in the Muslim-Croat Federation.
For president of Republika Srpska.
For a parliament in Republika Srpska.
A seventh election, for municipal officials, was postponed after the OSCE ruled the Bosnian Serbs guilty of manipulating voter registration and other irregularities.
Most attention is focused on the national presidential race. The "nightmare scenario" as one Western diplomat puts it, is that incumbent President Alija Izetbegovic and Silajdzic may split the Bosniak vote and clear the way for nationalist Serb Momcilo Krajisnik to come to power.
Silajdzic says this outcome is "mathematically impossible" and is a scare tactic being promoted by SDA supporters to solidify the vote for Izetbegovic, whom observers say is most likely to win. He would serve for two years until new elections are held.
Even the OSCE admits these will not be "free and fair" elections, but hopes they will be "reasonably democratic." Critics say it is unreasonable to insist on holding the elections when none of the pre-conditions of the Dayton Accords have been fulfilled.
Far from enabling refugees -- mostly Muslims who were victims of Serb "ethnic cleansing" -- to return to their homes, the campaign has been the signal for fresh expulsions of Muslims and Croats from Serb territory.
Muslims who attempted to cross into Serb territory to visit their home towns and villages have been routinely beaten by Bosnian Serb policemen and civilians. But not all the violence has been inter-ethnic; Silajdzic was viciously attacked in northwestern Bosnia by supporters of the ruling Muslim SDA. The OSCE has identified 12 hotspots around the country where it says election day violence is possible.
So it is with a heavy heart that a 26-year-old mother of a two-year-old boy -- who asked that her name not be used -- heads to the polls this weekend. She sums up her predicament.
"It is impossible to get enthusiastic," she says. "There is no party I could vote for with confidence that it will ensure a better future for me and my child."