More on the Election (But Not the One in Florida)

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 14 2000 9:00 PM

More on the Election (But Not the One in Florida)

Partial, unofficial returns are in, and although the final count could take weeks, the press is already projecting winners. But even if you think you can't bear to read another line of another article about elections, don't shut down this Web page in disgust. This is Sarajevo we're talking about, not Tallahassee, and despite the apparently unstoppable progress of globalization, there are still a few differences between the two: Nobody in Bosnia is so far challenging the election results in the courts; there are no charges of irregular ballot design; and there are no former secretaries of state on hand to monitor the proceedings. Clearly, the Sunshine State requires a higher level of diplomacy than does this former war zone.

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On the other hand, if you thought American electoral law was hard to understand, the complexity of the Bosnian electoral system will stupefy you altogether: By contrast, even the Electoral College appears a thing of beauty, simplicity, and logic. Since the Dayton Accord of 1995, Bosnia has been a federation of two states—the Republic of Srpska and a Muslim-Croat state—and on Saturday, the Bosnians elected federal, state, and local leaders, including members of a federal parliament (which barely functions), the president of the Serb federation, and local and national parliamentarians in the Muslim-Croat state. Plus the Croats carried out an (unofficial) referendum, asking Croat voters whether they would like to create a new Croatian statelet in the southwestern corner of the country. Plus there are thousands of absentee ballots to count. These are not, however, overseas military and tourists as in Florida, but rather displaced refugees, who have the right to vote in the place where they lived before being ejected from their homes during the war.

And yet, despite the wide variety of elections and candidates, after only three days of vote-counting, we have a much clearer result in Bosnia than we have in the United States after a week. Already, we know that the big loser is the West: us, NATO, the OSCE, and everyone else who has pumped millions of dollars into knitting Bosnia back into a single country. For the victors this week look set to be the Serb Democratic Party (founded by Radovan Karadzic, indicted for war crimes by the Hague); the Croatian Democratic Union (which said last week that it no longer recognizes the authority of Western officials in Bosnia), and the Muslim nationalists, the Party for Democratic Action. All three parties advocate more autonomy for the ethnic groups they represent, even downright independence. The official history of the Republic of Srpska, for example, acknowledges that the Bosnian Serbs went to war in order to unite into a single state with Serbs in Serbia, and although "this has not proved possible for the time being," it remains the goal of most of the republic's leaders.

Given that this is already a country with three separate legal codes, three separate telephone networks, three electrical grids, and three educational systems, not to mention one of the world's most complex political systems, the election bodes ill for the country's inhabitants, who aren't getting any wealthier. It also bodes ill for refugees, who still, after five years of effort and $5 billion of Western investment, are too intimidated to return home and are harassed when they do. Human Rights Watch, which has produced a brilliant report on the non-return of refugees in one city in the Serb republic, describes the resettlement efforts as "limited and often obstructed by authorities": Everyone from local police to local politicians to the local telephone companies (who claim that "technical problems" prevent the restoration of service in non-Serb areas) do their best, in other words, to keep Muslims from coming home. So much for the implementation of the Dayton Accord.

In the end, though, Florida and Bosnia do have one thing in common: Whoever is the next president of the United States will be responsible for the health and welfare of their citizens. For no one pretends that the Bosnian federation, so rich in parliaments, presidents, and political parties, would exist at all were it not for the NATO peacekeeping force that continues, in effect, to occupy the country and to force its citizens to continue living with one another. In the wake of these elections, some are calling for the West to bear down even harder on Bosnian politicians, forcing them to abandon nationalist policies. Others are wondering whether it isn't time to start talking about partition. It still isn't quite PC to say so, but there may come a point when ethnic reconciliation has to be deemed a failure, and we are reaching that point fast.

In either case, this may well be one of the first issues that whoever becomes president has to deal with. Forced off the front pages (or all pages) by the multiple recounts, Bosnia is ripe for a new conflict. Not only does this election indicate that national divisions are worsening, a cache of weapons was recently discovered in one of the Croatian-controlled areas of the country—possibly a harbinger of a new war. There was a great deal of posturing during the presidential campaign about who knew more about the Balkans: I hope the winner will be prepared to show off his alleged erudition, and quickly.