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Bosnian Elections Reaffirm Massive Ethnic Divisions

Balkans: Balloting is chaotic but mostly peaceful. Some crossing lines to vote are stunned they cannot visit homes. Muslim-led party refuses to recognize Serbian results.

September 15, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Under the watch of heavily armed NATO-led troops, Bosnians voted Saturday in chaotic but relatively peaceful elections that will shape the future of this ethnically riven country and the role of its international custodians.

Tens of thousands of war survivors crossed the Drina River from Yugoslavia, walked to polls or were bused to territory controlled by their wartime enemies to vote behind barbed wire, in artillery-pocked schoolhouses, in a rock quarry and, in one case, on the edge of a minefield.

But showing the mistrust and suspicion that linger, a lower-than-expected number of refugees dared to cross the ethnic lines that divide Bosnia-Herzegovina, and those who did were stunned to find they were not allowed to return to the homes from which they were expelled during the 3 1/2-year war.

Despite upbeat assessments from U.S. officials, the flawed elections underscore the division that haunts Bosnia and bode ill for a future re-integration that U.S. sponsors of the flagging peace process hope will prevent renewed fighting.

In an immediate setback, the party of Bosnia's Muslim-led government announced late Saturday that it will refuse to recognize results in the Bosnian Serb half of the country. The protest casts further doubt on the level of cooperation that will exist among Muslim, Croatian and Serbian leaders who must co-govern in a three-person presidency and a mixed legislature elected in Saturday's vote.

"Irregularities and the lack of the necessary conditions for free and fair elections [required in the U.S.-brokered agreement that stopped the war] have deceitfully flawed the vote," said the Party of Democratic Action, which is led by President Alija Izetbegovic.

A raft of procedural problems, glitches and severe delays dogged Saturday's vote more than bloodshed--to the surprise of North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders whose troops patrolled and protected the proceedings after weeks of specialized training geared to handling riots and mobs.

The anticipated traffic jams on Bosnia's mountainous roads--some of which were dusted with snow early Saturday--did not materialize, and incidents were relatively mild for a country only just emerging from vicious war.

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Robert H. Frowick, the U.S. diplomat in charge of supervising the elections, for which no results were immediately available, reported a turnout of between 60% and 70%. But only 20,000 people crossed into Republika Srpska, as the Serbian half of the country is called, from the section controlled by the Muslim-Croat federation. About 4,000 went into Muslim-Croat territory, he said.

Frowick judged the elections to be "almost entirely free of abuse" and "surprisingly incident-free." Asked about the refusal of Izetbegovic's party to recognize the results in Republika Srpska, Frowick said it was up to his Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to certify the results. He said all political parties had agreed to participate in the elections despite being fully aware that ideal political conditions did not exist.

"I really believe the elections were essential as a step toward trying to pull together joint [government] institutions at the highest level to give the concept of 'Bosnia and Herzegovina' a chance," Frowick told a small group of reporters.

Raising again the prospect of U.S. diplomatic and military involvement in Bosnia beyond the Clinton administration's formal yearlong pledge, Frowick said he firmly believes in continued international "strength" here.

"We have a base now on which to try to realize the promise of [the Dayton, Ohio, peace accord], and what would be essential is a strong ongoing commitment by the international community to ensure not only that it holds together but that the whole process deepens over these next two years to the next election and beyond," Frowick said.

As for the troops safeguarding the voting, "It's been kind of an anticlimactic day," U.S. Army Col. John Batiste said, expressing relief. Turnout "is less than I expected. I really don't understand it."

Batiste, who commands a brigade that oversees some of the most tense Serb-held territory in northeastern Bosnia, was surveying the voting at a polling station outside the town of Novo Kasaba. Just 250 yards away lay a suspected mass grave of Muslims killed after the Bosnian Serb army overran the U.N.-protected "safe area" of Srebrenica in July 1995.

Ibrahim Hodzic, whose two sons are still missing from the fall of Srebrenica, was among the 35 Muslim refugees who were bused past burned-out houses to the voting site. "I just want them [the Serbs] to let us come back," the 64-year-old, said, weeping.

But Milorad Jovanovic, a Bosnian Serb election official handling Hodzic's vote, said he was thankful the Muslims he regards as enemies were there to vote but not to stay.

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