Bosnia's elections set to shake the Balkans

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Most voters don't seem to know it yet, and even the international community has its doubts, but this weekend's municipal elections in Bosnia may just trigger a geopolitical earthquake to shake the insidious certainties of nationalism and "ethnic cleansing" inherited from four years of war.

At first sight, the elections look like just another confirmation of the ethnic freeze that has existed since the cease-fire two years ago.

Serbs, Croats and Muslims all now live separately - in some instances glowering at each other across the street in the same town, but still living apart - and nobody has shown much inclination either to return home or to welcome back refugees from the "wrong" ethnic group.

But these elections carry a secret weapon. This is the power given to voters to cast their ballot in absentia in the towns and villages where they lived in 1991, before the war started.

In other words, a Muslim from Srebrenica now living as a refugee in Sarajevo has the right to vote in Srebrenica - but without needing to run the risk of actually going there on election day.

Similarly, parties are putting up candidates in areas where it is too dangerous for them to campaign but where they can count on the support of hundreds or thousands of refugees of their own ethnic group who want to influence the outcome in their old home towns.

The results could be spectacular, particularly since unofficial estimates put the number of absentee voters as high as 40 per cent.

A town that is now purely Serb, such as Visegrad, might suddenly find itself with a Muslim town council; a former Serb stronghold such as Drvar in western Bosnia, which is now exclusively Croat, might find that the Serbs are in charge again, albeit from a distance.

These are explosive scenarios, and not necessarily ones that will end happily. The risks are enormous, but so are the possible rewards. "This is the last chance for the international community to prove the Dayton Accords can be put into action," said one Western official. "Failure will mean permanent dismemberment of a European country along ethnic lines. Success won't lead to reintegration, but at least it will bring back some normality."

Originally, the municipal elections were supposed to have taken place last September alongside parliamentary and presidential elections for the different levels of Bosnia's complex government. They were cancelled because political conditions were not right.

Since refugees at that time were entitled to nominate any new place of residence, the main nationalist parties tried to use the elections as a means of further ethnic engineering - massing their supporters in strategic towns that they yearned to wrest back from one of the other factions.

This year the rules have changed, and voters have to choose either the place where they lived in 1991, or the place where they have been resident since June 1996. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been ruthless in checking registration lists for both candidates and voters, and in some cases has struck candidates out of the election as punishment for attempted irregularities.

There is sure to be stiff resistance to any Muslim victory in a Serb- held area, for example. But the international community hopes to pressure the two sides into accepting one another through a rigorous pol icy of sanctions.

"If municipality `A' refuses to let the winning candidates enter its territory, it will be cut off from all international aid. That may not make much of an impression at first, but over time, as people see that municipal ity `B' down the road is beginning to prosper because it has a policy of co-operation, things may change," said Fabio Gergolet, OSCE spokesman in Banja Luka. "Economic well-being is the key to change in this country."

If things go wrong, the elections could lead to a heightening of tension in key flashpoints and an entrenchment, not a loosening, of nationalist aggression among the three groups.

Some municipality boundaries are still in dispute, notably along the internal divide between Serb-held Bosnia and the Muslim-Croat federation. There are also rivalries growing within each half of the country - especially between the Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic in Banja Luka and her predecessor Radovan Karadzic and his friends, based in Pale. Places to watch include Brcko, in the northeast, whose status still has not been determined by the international community.

The town itself is now Serb-dominated, but the municipality as a whole is balanced almost evenly between Serbs and Muslims. The outcome of the election could, in a worst-case scenario, result in one or other of the populations being driven out.

Drvar will also be interesting, since busloads of Serb refugees will be arriving over the weekend, not just to vote but also to make their presence keenly felt in their former home.

In June, a number of Serb homes were burned in Drvar just as former inhabitants were putting together a request to be allowed back.

Overall, the performance of the main nationalist parties will be crucial. Last year, they dominated everything, but this year they are under pressure both from their own internal disputes - as in Serb Bosnia, for example - and also from a profusion of smaller parties that have emerged.

A sign of the main parties' nervousness is that two of them, the Croats and the Pale Serbs, threatened to boycott the poll altogether. But yesterday, under intense international pressure, both agreed to take part.