bosnia report
New Series No. 6/7 September - December 1998
A Vote against Peace
by Marshall Freeman Harris

The Clinton administration's characterization of the September 1998 elections in Bosnia as 'extraordinarily important and positive' crosses the line between 'spin' and fantasy. Even more incredible is US Envoy Robert Gelbard's claim that the vote will promote the 'further development of democratic pluralism'. In fact, these elections represent the biggest setback to Bosnian reunification since the Dayton Accords rewarded Serbian aggression and legitimized the politics of ethnic supremacism three years ago.

Voters in Bosnia's Serbian entity have elected as their president Nikola Poplasen, a Chetnik 'Vojvoda' who was a uniformed soldier during Serbia's 1992-95 war against Bosnian civilians, and whose party is affiliated with the Belgrade-based party of unindicted Serbian war criminal and paramilitary leader Vojislav Seselj. Mr Poplasen has stated that 'entity borders are only imaginary lines' and that he will use 'all constitutional means' to unite the Bosnian Serb entity with Serbia proper. He has also said that 'Serbian political and historical goals' - that is, the creation of a unitary, ethnically 'pure' state for all Serbs - 'do not have to be achieved during my mandate, but in some five to ten years.'

Throughout the tenure of Biljana Plavsic, the 'less extreme' nationalist whom Poplasen defeated, Mr Gelbard and other US officials had pointed to the significance of her role and office as evidence of the success of the Administration's Bosnia policies. Mrs Plavsic and her allies were rewarded with millions of dollars in US assistance. During the electoral campaign, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even gave Mrs Plavsic a de facto endorsement through a public meeting. Now, however, Mr Gelbard says that the presidency of the Serbian entity is insignificant. Even more remarkably, he is also claiming that this was the only race that did not produce the results for which the United States had hoped.

This is, of course, nonsense. In the Serbian entity's parliamentary races, the Clinton administration did not want Mr Poplasen's party and its coalition partner, the party of indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, to win nearly three times as many votes as Mrs Plavsic's party. Nor did it want incumbent Bosnian Croat nationalist leader Kresimir Zubak to be defeated by ultra-nationalist Ante Jelavic, who told voters that he would protect their national interests 'at any cost' and preserve the Bosnian Croat entity's strong links with Croatia proper.

Mr Gelbard and a chorus of international officials are also claiming that, in spite of these results, the elections in general reflect the 'continued erosion' of support for nationalists. This claim is specious, because even the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat candidates whom the United States has deemed more moderate and less nationalisÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ t have implemented policies that are little different in substance from those of Bosnia's most extremist officials.

The difference between the two groups has been largely in style. While Mr Karadzic waxed defiant and ranted about Serbian supremacy, Mrs Plavsic pledged cooperation with the West. While Momcilo Krajisnik vowed to discard the Dayton Accords, Zivko Radisic, the more soft-spoken former Banja Luka mayor who de- feated him in the race for the Serbian seat in Bosnia's presidency, vowed to accept the Accords and focus on economic reforms. While Mr Jelavic boasted about his close relations with Zagreb, Mr Zubak repeatedly made noises about minority rights and cooperation. In practice, all six leaders - and many of their Muslim counterparts - have implemented execrable policies that fly in the face of the Dayton Accords.

In 1997, these officials - including Mr Karadzic, who continues to exercise influence behind the scenes - allowed only 50,000 internally displaced persons to return to their homes. Of these, only 10,000 were able to return to areas in which their ethno-religious group is now in the minority. Only 25 percent of the country's refugees were allowed to return from abroad. As a result, more than one million people - or one in every four Bosnians - are still displaced. Throughout their tenures, these officials have also allowed police to violate human rights with impunity and have implemented racist policies that have been at best highly discriminatory against - and at worst physically injurious to - minorities in their jurisdictions.

In short, Bosnia's hardline nationalists are maintaining their harsh rhetoric while cementing Bosnia's post-war ethnic divisions. The US-preferred nationalists are playing the Dayton game by speaking softly, attending meetings with their counterparts of other ethnicities, and accepting US praise and aid checks. All the while, however, they too are promoting Bosnia's partition.

It is impossible to conceive of a reunified, multi-ethnic Bosnian state as long as the Clinton administration provides cover for nationalism with a human face. After three years of such US support, Bosnia is today more ethnically segregated than when the war ended. To reverse this process, Mr Gelbard and other officials must first stop spinning the truth about what is happening in the country. Secondly they must stop pinning their hopes on nationalists who merely pay lip-service to cooperation. Lastly, they must finally develop policies to assist the country's genuinely democratic and pro-reunification forces.

Marshall Freeman Harris, senior fellow at Freedom House, is a former State Department official who resigned in protest against US inaction in Bosnia. This article was published in The Washington Times, 5 October 1998.


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