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EU Monitors Say Bosnia Vote Was Not 'Free, Fair'

September 16, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Independent monitors Sunday assailed Bosnia's first postwar elections, saying technical flaws and political obstruction prevented large numbers of people from voting and raised questions about the validity of the balloting.

Even as an increasingly troubled picture of the elections emerged, U.S. officials rushed to stamp their approval on the proceedings, in which Muslim refugees were bused to separate and often substandard polling stations.

The elections were held Saturday with little violence thanks to the presence of 60,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led troops. But there were complaints Sunday that some of those troops permitted Bosnian Serb police to block and intimidate non-Serbian voters returning to the towns from which they were expelled during the 3 1/2-year war.

Only 20,000 refugees crossed the ethnic boundary line from the Muslim-Croat federation into the Bosnian Serbs' Republika Srpska to vote, with 4,000 going in the other direction, according to NATO figures. Up to 150,000 refugee voters had been expected. The nationwide turnout was reported between 68% and 70%.

"It is quite disturbing that such a small number actually crossed," said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "A large part of the problem is they were simply afraid."

With the counting of ballots underway, the test will now be whether monitors will be able to recommend certification of the election results given the extent of the irregularities they observed.

Critics contend that the Clinton administration, eager to make the Bosnian conflict appear more settled than it is so that U.S. troops can be withdrawn, will put a rosy glow on the elections--which will usher in a three-person presidency and an ethnically mixed legislature.

A delegation from the European Parliament that observed the elections was sharply critical of the handling of both the voting day and the campaign that led up to it. Under the U.S.-brokered peace accord that stopped Bosnia-Herzegovina's war nine months ago, national elections were to be held if "free and fair" conditions existed. By all accounts, those conditions do not exist, but the elections went ahead under U.S. pressure.

"You cannot use those two words . . . 'free and fair,' " said Doris Pack, a German who chaired the European Union delegation.

She complained of deficient voter lists, unnecessary overcrowding and poorly organized voting stations that required some Bosnians to wait up to 10 hours to cast their ballots.

In one Serb-held city, near Gorazde, Pack pointed to "grossly inadequate facilities" that gave priority to Serbian voters over Muslim refugees who had returned to vote. By midday Saturday, 10 times more Serbs--some being bused in from elsewhere--had been allowed to vote than displaced Muslims, she said.

The EU delegation also observed numerous cases of voters who could not find their names on revised registration lists. Although this problem popped up all over the country, the delegation said, it was particularly troublesome for refugees who were channeled into designated polling stations.

In Republika Srpska, for example, Serbs who could not find their names on the registration list could consult a master list in a Central Election Committee office. But Muslims who had crossed into Republika Srpska had no way to appeal because their movement was restricted by NATO and the Bosnian Serb police.

The EU also focused on the role of TV, radio and newspapers during the campaign and found that, especially in Serb and Croat-controlled areas, the media were biased, abusive of opposition and "part and parcel of the power structures of [nationalist] regimes."

"The inadequacies have been so great as to call into question the poll itself," an EU-commissioned report concluded.

Critical assessments of the elections contrasted with a more upbeat portrait from Washington. The U.S. diplomat in charge of supervising the voting, Robert H. Frowick, will issue the final report on whether the elections were "reasonably democratic" and recommend whether the results should be certified.

Within days of certification, all economic sanctions against Serbia and the Republika Srpska, levied because of their roles in starting the war, are set to be lifted--taking away from the West one of its key tools of leverage.

In the latest election glitch, Bosnian Serb officials Sunday halted the counting of ballots throughout the Republika Srpska.

The officials wanted lists of voters' names to accompany absentee ballots that were being delivered to counting centers from abroad. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was overseeing the elections, refused, holding to its pledge to offer a "veil of secrecy" to absentee refugee voters, most of whom are Muslim and Croat.

The OSCE ordered Bosnian Serb election officials to resume the count. It was not known whether they did.

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