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Bosnia: The Land Of Governments-In-Exile?-- An Analysis

Prague, 16 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Local elections took place across Bosnia-Herzegovina on September 13-14. The real difficulties, however, will begin once the votes are counted in about a week's time.

New rules governing voter registration made it relatively difficult for the nationalists to carry out the widespread fraud they did in 1996. Under the old rules, it was easy for nationalists to pack the voting rolls of any given town by simply having prospective voters declare that they eventually intended to live there.

Consequently, all three nationalist parties -- the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), and the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) -- registered refugee voters strategically to help consolidate their control over "ethnically cleansed" areas. Fraud was so great that the OSCE, which organized the 1996 vote, postponed the local elections until now so that there would be enough time to reregister all voters.

In last weekend's vote, some 90 percent of the registered voters were signed up to cast their ballots in the place where they had actually lived before the war and where they hope to live again. The problem is that most of the refugees come from places now controlled by another nationality that does not want the refugees back. Most of those refugees consequently voted by absentee ballot.

But some tried to vote in their former home towns, although they generally ran into problems when they did so. OSCE election supervisors, who for the most part had only praise for the way developments went on polling day, criticized officials in several towns for trying to prevent returned refugees from voting. Examples of this were Serbs attempting to vote in Croat-held Drvar, or Muslims wanting to cast their ballots in Serb-controlled eastern Bosnia.

The big question is what will happen if and when all those refugee votes produce town councils dominated by a nationality that formerly made up the majority in towns where another nationality now rules. If the current authorities would not gladly let the former inhabitants come back to vote, can those same authorities be expected to hand over power once the votes are counted?

If their track record in implementing the Dayton agreement is anything to go by, one cannot, in fact, expect the current authorities to yield power quickly or peacefully. After all, those authorities have already blocked the return of refugees to their old homes throughout Bosnia. And the right to go home, as well as freedom of movement, are two of the cornerstones of the Dayton agreement.

Nor can one expect much effective pressure from the international community to force the local authorities to respect the results of the latest elections. The foreigners have rarely gotten tough with the powers on the ground to persuade them to allow refugees to return to their old homes. It is thus difficult to imagine NATO peacekeepers moving into communities throughout the republic to ensure that the newly elected town councils can take office and govern.

But it is highly unlikely that the current authorities will yield power to members of another nationality without a show of force from the outside. That has been one of the key lessons from the conflict throughout the former Yugoslavia: only determined willingness to apply force brings results, while diplomacy not backed up by armed might invites contempt.

The result is thus likely to be a continued ethnically based partition, with town councils in-exile being formed on behalf of municipalities across the republic. There is already some precedent for this, in that the pre-war city governments of some Muslim communities in eastern Bosnia or of some Croatian towns in northern Bosnia continued throughout the war to maintain an administration-in-exile after Serbian "ethnic cleansing" drove them from their original homes. What will be different now is that such councils will be more numerous. And the fact that they must remain in exile will only serve to embarrass the foreign powers that sponsored the Dayton agreement and last weekend's elections.