WASHINGTON — Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, contradicting repeated assurances from the State Department about the feasibility of a free and fair vote in Bosnia, urged President Clinton on Thursday to postpone the Sept. 14 presidential and parliamentary elections there, calling them "a sham in the making."
"If held under present conditions," Dole said in a letter to the president, "these elections will be neither free nor fair, but a fraud--with the American stamp of approval."
Even as Dole's staff released the text of his letter to Clinton in Washington, the former senator was finishing up his working vacation in Santa Barbara with an evening campaign stop in San Luis Obispo, where he pledged to campaign aggressively in California.
"We are going to see a lot of California this fall and the Dole-Kemp ticket is going to carry this state Nov. 5," he predicted before a crowd of several thousand supporters at the rally.
Today, he and running mate Jack Kemp will participate in an 8:15 a.m. rally at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa that strategists are calling the unofficial start of the fall campaign. The official fall kickoff will come on Labor Day at an event in St. Louis.
Dole's demand on Bosnia comes amid speculation by many foreign policy analysts that the Clinton administration is encouraging speedy elections--despite its misgivings--because it wants to avert a postponement that might draw GOP criticism and force U.S. troops to remain in Bosnia well into 1997.
The White House has promised repeatedly that U.S. troops would either be out of Bosnia or preparing to leave before the end of this year. The letter represents Dole's first challenge to Clinton on a foreign policy matter in this election season. Dole seemed to have taken Bosnia off the table by earlier expressing his support for the Dayton peace agreement, which spelled out the details of a cease-fire and the election process.
Even as Dole's staff released the text of his letter to Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard, just back from Bosnia, insisted that NATO troops can help ensure a "free and fair environment" for the upcoming national elections there. But he also said primary responsibility for maintaining law and order would lie with local police.
On Wednesday, Robert H. Frowick, the U.S. diplomat who heads the international mission supervising elections in Bosnia, postponed municipal elections indefinitely, citing "widespread abuse." But he said national elections would go on. His decision evidently overruled the conclusions of the mission, which reportedly had voted, 4 to 3, to postpone all the elections.
Most of the abuse has been attributed to Serb politicians who are said to be coercing masses of Serbs to register to vote in former Muslim villages so these communities can be ratified as Serbian.
Dole welcomed the step by Frowick but demanded a delay in the presidential and parliamentary elections as well. He said that among other shortcomings, the Bosnian government and the NATO troops had done little about organized violence against opposition leaders and candidates, the lack of freedom of movement, the weakness of independent media and the defiance of the international community by indicted war criminals.
"Moreover, there is real danger for violence," Dole said. "Elections held under these circumstances will only serve to unfairly legitimize nationalist extremists, entrench ethnic divisions and condemn Bosna and its people to authoritarianism and partition.
"I cannot conceive of a single compelling national interest for pressing forward on Sept. 14.
"Indeed, to the contrary, I believe that putting American prestige behind such a process only serves to undermine our leadership and makes a mockery of our commitment to democratic principles, while making it more difficult for U.S. troops in Bosnia to accomplish their goals."
Dole urged Clinton "to use American leadership and influence" to postpone the elections. Because Frowick, who has the authority to make decisions for his international mission, is an American diplomat, it presumably would not be difficult for Washington to postpone the elections if it wanted to do so.
At the State Department, Gelbard discussed a flare-up in the village of Mahala earlier in the day. NATO troops had seized 46 Bosnian Serb police officers, accusing them of beating and shooting at Muslim refugees trying to return to their homes in the Serb-controlled village.
"I will not stand here and tell you that we expect that there will be no incidents similar to this now or in the future, including on election day," he said.
But he said "there is detailed planning and preparation [by NATO troops and international police] that's being done to try to counter such incidents by identifying what they call hot spots." On top of this, he said, the foreign forces would have helicopters and other equipment that would rush them to unexpected flare-ups.
Gelbard said he had received assurances from Muslim, Croat and Serb security officials, who had primary responsibility for law and order, that the job could be done.
"We think that the atmosphere does exist to hold national elections," he said. "There's a big difference between the federal elections . . . and municipal elections. And we feel that the atmosphere is appropriate, that such elections can be held in a free and fair environment and they will be held in that way."
Meisler reported from Washington and Weiss reported from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.