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Bosnia: Analysis From Washington - Elections Unifying and Divisive

Washington, 17 September 1996 (RFE/RL) - Saturday's closely-watched balloting in Bosnia calls into question three major assumptions of the international community about the virtues of elections in and of themselves.

This vote like so many others in former communist states has undermined the confident assumption of the West that holding elections will inevitably heal social, political, and ethnic rifts. In fact, as many outside observers and immediate participants have now noted, just the reverse appears to be taking place in Bosnia.

That is because candidates in elections inevitably appeal to precisely the interests and values that divide people, and by so doing, they exacerbate existing divisions. While holding a series of elections over time may gradually unite people, as individuals come to see that compromise is both necessary and valuable, a single vote seems more likely to have just the opposite effect.

But no one election day will relieve either the international community or the parties in Bosnia of their responsibilities for promoting democracy and freedom in that war-torn land.

The Bosnia vote has also called into question the assumption of many that procedural correctness is enough, that if the voting day is not marred by violence, fraud or abuse, the election itself is necessarily "free and fair."

All too many in the international community have accepted that minimalist standard of democracy, but the Bosnia balloting once again shows that it is inadequate: Past intimidation kept some candidates from running and some people from voting, and the implicit threat of reprisals from local majorities undoubtedly frightened some people into casting their ballots in ways they did not intend.

Both of these patterns were undoubtedly exacerbated further by the inexperience of the population with either voting or democracy more generally, an inexperience that will also play itself out in how the people of Bosnia react to the outcome of the vote.

This latest election in a post-communist country highlights some of the major problems with a major shift in the position of the international community concerning states divided by ethnic conflict.

Until recently, the international community had been willing to accept partition, formal or informal, as the price of ending or at least ameliorating violent ethnic clashes. Kashmir and Cyprus are but two of many examples.

Now, however, in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the international community has reached a consensus that borders must be maintained and the groups fighting within them forced to live together peacefully.

One reason for this shift is the belief that states which emerge from the break up of other states may be no more tolerant than the larger ones from which they emerged. Another is an appreciation of the instability that the breakup of states causes for the international community. And still a third reason is that many now believe that democracy will inevitably cure ethnic conflicts on its own.

But as the Bosnia voting demonstrates, these assumptions may be far too optimistic. On the one hand, they fail to reflect the extent to which there may be a very real trade-off between the defense of borders and the far more important defense of human rights -- for both minorities and majorities, in the absence of a continuing international presence.

And on the other, they fail to reflect the extent to which their implementation will require from all the members of the international community a greater and longer commitment to intervention in the internal affairs of another state than many appear willing or able to do.

Consequently, as the Bosnian results come in, they represent an important first step toward a better future but not the last one. That is because they do not end the challenge for Bosnia and the international community but only change its form.