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Bosnia Peace Must Not Stand in Line Behind Vengeance : Elections should take place despite the cries for justice first

June 09, 1996

The United States and its NATO allies overreached in expecting a quick fix for Bosnia. American troops would be home in a year, President Clinton promised after the warring factions signed a peace treaty in Paris last December. It seemed possible then and may still be. The NATO troops were deployed solely to separate Bosnia's Muslim, Serb and Croatian armies while the politicians worked on the modalities of a new government. The Dayton agreement had already laid the foundation.

But the optimism of December and January has given way to bitterness and distrust. This war was too cruel. Demands for justice and vengeance have overwhelmed the efforts of diplomats and politicians to establish a government for the bloodied country by September. "We're not anywhere near where we'd like to be," U.S. Adm. Leighton Smith, the outgoing commander of NATO forces in Bosnia, told reporters Friday.

Bosnia, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the multinational alliance attempting to restore civil order, now are faced with a critical issue of priority: Should plans move ahead for the September elections without regard to Muslim demands for trials for the Bosnian Serbs who launched the aggression in 1991? Specifically, can elections be held while Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, both indicted by a U.N. tribunal as war criminals, remain free? That's the sticking point that threatens the timetable.

Washington has leaned hard on President Slobodan Milosevic of neighboring Serbia, the godfather of Bosnian Serb nationalism, to arrange the turnover of Karadzic and Mladic to the U.N. tribunal, but so far without success. Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim president of Bosnia, and other Muslim politicians insist elections cannot be held while the two Serb leaders remain free, or while Muslims are not free to return to the homes they were driven from by the brutal policy of ethnic cleansing.

So America and its NATO allies, with 60,000 troops deployed and a target pullout date just six months away, find themselves mired in Balkan politics, and they should not be surprised. Every faction was a loser in the Bosnian war, and each now seeks some advantage in the effort to nail down a peace. On the communal lists of priorities, vengeance ranks high, and not all the guns of NATO and plans of international politicians can change that.

What the Clinton administration and America's allies in Europe can and should do is press ahead with the election process. Nothing conclusive can be gained by NATO troops trying, as Izetbegovic's government insists, to capture the infamous Karadzic and Mladic. Once the hunt begins, where does it stop? The Muslims would not be satisfied with just those two. And the chances of Karadzic and Mladic dying from old age, peacefully in their beds, are slight anyway. If they walk, or are pushed, into the hands of international authorities, fine. Try them. But the fate of these two should not be allowed to deter progress toward peace.

Election of even a weak government, which Bosnia's is bound to be, is the path to take. It's the proper starting point. Human-rights and election-monitoring groups say conditions are not suitable for the free and fair elections set out by the Dayton agreement. They are correct. But who is going to improve the conditions? President Clinton says he'll withdraw the 19,000 U.S. troops from Bosnia on schedule, in January. America's European allies have made clear their intention to follow suit. "If you go, we go," their diplomats insist to Washington.

Bosnia needs to take a step forward with elections. Peace should not wait for vengeance.

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