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Balkan Report: September 16, 1998

16 September 1998, Volume 2, Number 37

'A Great Day for Democracy.' Nearly 80 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina's registered voters cast their ballots on September 12 and 13 at polling stations in the Republika Srpska, the mainly Croatian and Muslim federation, and at special refugee voting centers in Croatia and federal Yugoslavia. The OSCE, which supervised the general election, also allowed Bosnian refugees in other countries to cast absentee votes by mail. Some polling stations in Bosnia failed to open on time on Saturday because of computer problems or because complete voting lists had not arrived. The OSCE and local authorities quickly overcame the problems, and voting proceeded smoothly the following day. In contrast to the 1996 general elections, voting took place without any reports of violence. Inconclusive first results have begun to trickle in, and OSCE officials expect the final tally to be ready by the middle of next week.

In Banja Luka on September 13, Bosnian Serb authorities detained a Sarajevo-based television crew for two hours for filming the office of Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic without permission. Robert Barry, who is the OSCE's chief official supervising the vote, called the detention of the journalists "outrageous" and promised to investigate the incident, AP reported. Barry added, however, that the voting was "the most successful" election in Bosnia since the Dayton agreement was signed at the end of 1995. Carlos Westendorp, who is the international community's chief representative in Bosnia, called the election "a great day for democracy." Robert Gelbard, who is President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, said that the voting was "free and fair," adding that "no election process is perfect." He expressed concern, however, that posters depicting indicted war criminals appeared in some Croatian or Serbian areas, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service reported.

Some observers suggested, however, that the elections will still in all likelihood lead to majorities for nationalist parties. These include the relatively moderate nationalist groups - such as those led by Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic and Bosnian Croat leader Kresimir Zubak, both of whom have repudiated their hard-line wartime allies and hitched their wagons to Dayton.

The reason for the nationalist majorities is that the present voting rules enable candidates to appeal to only one ethnic group and be elected by it. In particular, those candidates who play on people's fears and enflame nationalist passions can do so in the knowledge that they need not worry about alienating voters from other ethnic backgrounds. Critics argue that if the rules were changed to require candidates to secure votes from all ethnic groups, hard-line nationalists would operate at a distinct disadvantage. Such new rules would especially benefit Social Democratic, multi-ethnic, and non-nationalist parties. These organizations would then become serious contenders for political power, instead of being relatively marginal forces, as they now are in most places.

Izetbegovic Talks to RFE/RL. Shortly before the vote, Alija Izetbegovic, who is the Muslim member of the joint presidency and de facto leader of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), gave RFE/RL's South Slavic Service one of the few interviews he granted during the campaign.

Although public opinion polls among Serbs and Croats show that most voters among those two ethnic groups regard Izetbegovic as an uncompromising Muslim nationalist, he presents himself as the leading statesman for a multi-ethnic state. He told RFE/RL that Croatian President Franjo Tudjman continues to have "great [territorial] ambitions" toward Bosnia-Herzegovina, but added that Sarajevo hopes to regulate relations with Zagreb through an internationally binding treaty. Izetbegovic noted that the Dayton agreement provides for dual citizenship, but stressed that only a bilateral treaty can deal with issues such as "where people serve in the army, to which state they pay taxes and where they vote." He said flatly that any Croatian-Bosnian treaty must end the possibility that Bosnian or Herzegovinian Croats can be elected to the Croatian parliament, as is now the case under Croatian law.

Turning to the politics of the Serbs, Izetbegovic agreed that "there is substance to the changes" that have come about in the Republika Srpska since Milorad Dodik became prime minister last winter. But, Izetbegovic added, political life in that entity remains a virtual Serbian monopoly. "The political pluralism in the Republika Srpska is a uni-national pluralism...In some parties, everyone from the doorman to the president is a Serb."

Asked whether he thinks that indicted war criminals - such as General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic - will continue to escape justice, Izetbegovic said that he is confident that they will have their day in court. He noted that the international community has "danced around" the question of actually apprehending key war criminals and taking them to The Hague, but stressed that the foreigners will not be able to leave Bosnia until true peace is restored. And that, he added, will depend on the question of individual responsibility for war crimes being settled lest people blame other ethnic groups as a whole.

Another key issue is the right of refugees to go home. Izetbegovic stressed that the only realistic solution to this problem is a regional one involving Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. He argued that Krajina Serbs living in Muslim homes in Bosnia can vacate those dwellings only if the Croatian authorities let the Serbs return, but added that "Croatian resistance [to letting Serbs go home] has been very strong."

Izetbegovic became somewhat defensive when asked why comparatively few Serbs and Croats have returned to Muslim-controlled Sarajevo, and conceded that the question of refugee return is a delicate one for politicians from each of the three main ethnic groups. He became even more defensive when RFE/RL suggested that the SDA might soon become subject to pressure by the international community, as has been the case with the other main nationalist parties - the Serbian Democratic Party and the Croatian Democratic Community. Izetbegovic charged that, while the SDA has a Muslim identity, it is not a "totalitarian party." He added that it allowed opposition parties to function in Sarajevo even during the war.

He nonetheless dismissed as "politically irrelevant" some of his Muslim rivals, such as Sefer Halilovic, a former military commander. As to Fikret "Babo" Abdic, the kingpin of the Bihac pocket, Izetbegovic said that the only dialogue partners for Abdic "are the judges at the Hague's" war crimes tribunal.

Finally, Izetbegovic declined to pass judgment as to whether the Gligorov-Izetbegovic plan at the beginning of the decade could have saved Yugoslavia by restructuring the federation. (Slovenia's Milan Kucan and Macedonia's Kiro Gligorov had each told RFE/RL earlier that they felt that Yugoslavia's demise could have been avoided.) Izetbegovic, for his part, argued that Yugoslavia suffered from "two severe illnesses," namely Serbian hegemony and a lack of freedom. He concluded that he now doubts that the "Quixotic" plan he devised with the Macedonian leader could have "cured those illnesses."

Thought of the Week. The independent Belgrade daily "Danas" asked rhetorically on September 15 if the relative lack of attention paid to the former Yugoslavia in the French media recently means that the world has grown tired of that region's problems.

Quote of the Week. Reuters on September 13 quoted an unnamed Western diplomat in Kosova as saying that Western policy there "is working" because the conflict has been contained: "The goal has been to erect a fire-break around Kosova, to prevent the conflict here from destabilizing Albania and Macedonia and igniting a wider war. Measured against that standard, the policy is working. One could object that it is a cold and calculating policy dressed up in rhetorical concern for human rights and vague threats against Belgrade to make it more palatable. But at the end of the day, we have managed to avoid air strikes and any deployment of troops. The dollar cost of our effort can be measured in tens of millions, not in billions as happened in Bosnia. And there is no great public outcry."