Bosnia's men of war sweep back into power

Our republic is like a beautiful 16-year-old girl with curly hair and blue eyes, the most beautiful creature that we will, if God permits, dress up and marry off into an alliance of Serb states

- Momcilo Krajisnik speaking in Banja Luka

To the surprise of no one in Bosnia, the candidates of the three ruling nationalist parties are certain to win seats on the three-man collective presidency. With most results in, the only question is whether the Muslim, Alija Izetbegovic, will maintain his lead over the Serb, Momcilo Krajisnik, to chair the group.

Results from 80 per cent of the 150 counting centres showed that Mr Izetbegovic led by 629,439 votes to 508,026 for Mr Krajisnik. The third member will be Kresimir Zubak, a Croat who had polled 245,047 votes. Mr Izetbegovic seems almost certain of winning the top slot in the presidency, due in part to a split in the Serb vote - Mladen Ivanic, running against Mr Krajisnik, had polled 241,712 votes.

On the basis of Bosnia's pre-war population, the Serb turnout appears to have been 100 per cent, if not more. This will fuel concern over the election's legitimacy.

The country's constitution, agreed in the Dayton peace talks last year, leaves many points open to negotiation among the three men - where they will meet, for example, and the powers of the chairman.

Many observers expect the three to meet for the first time in New York, where they are set to attend the UN General Assembly. The premise behind the Dayton peace plan is that the three parties are willing to work together - but this has so far only been true when there is a gun pointed at their heads.

Mr Krajisnik, knowing that his party was liable to fines for anti-Dayton statements, was mostly careful not to promise independence, preferring instead to solicit such demands from the adoring crowds at his rallies. But in the Serb heartland of Banja Luka he told them: "Our republic is like a 16-year-old girl with curly hair and blue eyes, the most beautiful creature that we will, if God permits, dress up and marry off into an alliance of Serb states."

Biljana Plavsic, his war-time comrade in the separatist Serb leadership and candidate for the presidency of the Srpska Republic, was more outspoken and was condemned by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which organised the poll, for repeated separatist statements.

Richard Holbrooke, the architect of Dayton, said the West had several levers to encourage Serb compliance: US recognition of Yugoslavia, economic aid packages, and others that "it's not useful to discuss in public". But critics of the election process are not convinced. "The people being elected are the war leaders," said John Fawcett of the International Crisis Group, an independent body. "So why do we think they're going to turn around and be buddy-buddy?" He foresees "a gridlock government" in which Mr Krajisnik and Mr Zubak, who favours Bosnian Croat secession, gang up on Mr Izetbegovic.

However, although Sarajevans joke that OSCE stands for "Organisation to Secure Clinton's Election", Western diplomats argue that the international community is committed to making the new Bosnia work. The test may come at Dayton mark two, to be held in London in December, which is supposed to redefine the international community's role in rebuilding Bosnia.

Zagreb (AP) Croatia's parliament yesterday ratified a treaty establishing relations between Croatia and rump Yugoslavia. "The agreement marks the end of an era ... and we can now turn our concentration from fighting towards development and growth," the deputy foreign minister, Ivan Simonovic, said.