Bosnian Serbs find many ways to say no to peace

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THE POLICEMAN put three ballot papers on a covered pool table, studied them carefully, then drew a decisive circle around the word 'against' on all three. Like the vast majority of Bosnian Serbs voting in the referendum this weekend, the officer was adamantly opposed to the map drawn up by Western powers and Russia, to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina between the Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation.

'I expect people to reject not the peace plan, but the map,' said Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb President, as he cast his vote in Pale, the mountain resort that serves as the capital of the self-declared 'Republika Srpska'. The voting took place against a US deadline to accept the plan by mid-October or see the arms supply ban against the Bosnian government lifted. If the embargo is lifted, Mr Karadzic is promising absolute defiance of the UN.

'We will take UN blue helmets as hostages, shoot down a lot of airplanes and arrest all foreigners on our territory,' he told the German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview to be published tomorow.

Asked how he had voted, he replied: 'It's a secret.' The same could not be said for many of his constituents. Referendum may be, as Mr Karadzic told the crowd of reporters, 'a magic word in the democratic world'; in 'Srpska' it is a witches' brew of propaganda and unusual electoral practices.

Privacy was not really on offer. Polling booths were available at some stations, but many voters were forced to make their choice in public - not that this mattered much to most voters in Pale, who were only too keen to express their opposition to the hated Contact Group maps. And along the front lines of Mount Trebevic, where Bosnian Serb trenches overlook Sarajevo, many soldiers voted vocally in a roll-call.

The thrice-voting policeman in Pale was breaking all the rules, according to Spaso Kovac, the election officer at the polling station, who none the less made no attempt to discard the extra votes.

'That is not allowed,' he said, when asked why the policeman had voted three times.

The culprit replied: 'I was voting for my wife and my father. We all voted the same way - against.'

Mr Kovac paused. 'It is not possible to vote in someone else's name, but he has very old parents, and he is a policeman. This is a unique case,' he pronounced. 'There is no need to vote for anyone else, because everyone here wants to vote in person. They made an exception for him.'

A similar exception was made for a Greek citizen, a volunteer in the Bosnian Serb army, who was granted voting rights because of his support for the cause. And anyone who really wanted to know how Mr Karadzic and the rest of the leadership voted had only to watch a pre-poll interview on Friday night on Pale television. As Mr Karadzic and his colleagues answered questions, the station flashed pictures of a ballot paper, with a hand helpfully encircling the 'no' option.

Reporters desperate for a dissenting voice have searched the hills and valleys of Republika Srpska for anyone admitting an intention to vote for the plan. The few voices in favour of ending the war now and negotiating a peace seem to be found only among young soldiers and frightened Muslims. In Banja Luka, the Bosnian Serbs' biggest city, where Mr Karadzic has never been popular (there many consider him a moderate), about 10,000 turned out to cheer him on and rally support against the plan.

Tonight polling stations will close at 7pm, and the results are due early this week. Election officers in Grbavica, a Serb-held suburb of Sarajevo, expect to announce their count tonight. 'We've had a lot of referendums so we are used to counting fast,' said Bjelica Radmila.

But few Bosnian Serbs have much idea of what will happen after the referendum. Their 'no' vote - against the wishes of the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic - will leave them even more isolated. He will be asked today by Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, to agree to the deployment of foreign observers who can verify Serbia's blockade of its former clients in Bosnia. If he agrees, the people of 'Srpska' will be utterly alone. The UN may lift the arms embargo on the Bosnian government; this might favour the Bosnian Serbs in the short term, as it will leave the Muslim enclaves and Sarajevo without UN protection. But without material help from Serbia, Pale and its army will find it hard to keep fighting.

This scenario leaves voters here unmoved.

'Probably it's going to be a very difficult situation,' said Susanna, a trader at the market in Pale who planned to vote 'no'. And, echoing the cry heard on both sides of the line in Bosnia, the mantra of a powerless people, she added: 'What can we do? We have no choice.'