Karadzic henchmen 'cleanse' poll lists

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After ethnic cleansing comes electoral cleansing. With six weeks to go to the Bosnian elections, displaced ethnic Serbs are being registered en masse to vote in the Serb-controlled half of the country in the interests of ethnic purity, regardless of their place of origin and often regardless of their wishes.

Authorities in Bosnia and Serbia are coercing Serb refugees to register to vote in the "Republika Srpska", Radovan Karadzic's Serbian Bosnia, to ensure a powerful Serb presence there. For election day, the authorities plan to transport tens of thousands of people to strategically chosen polling stations, many in towns with a pre-war Muslim or Croat majority.

It is an attempt to heighten ethnic divisions between the Republika Srpska in the north and east and the Muslim-Croat federation to the west and south. It thus subverts the Dayton peace accords, whereby the elections were meant to bring Bosnia's divided ethnic groups closer together.

"This puts the final touch on ethnic cleansing," said Marwan Elkhoury, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgrade. "The Serbs will ensure themselves the biggest possible majority in the Republika Srpska while keeping as many of their voters as possible out of federation territory."

This electoral engineering exploits the complex rules for refugee voters, who make up at least half Bosnia's 3.5 million electorate. In theory, refugees can choose to vote in the area where they were registered in a 1991 census or nominate entirely new electoral districts for themselves. If they choose the former, they fill out what is known as Form 1 and have the option of postal voting; if the latter, they name a new electoral district on Form 2 on the understanding they will travel there on election day.

In practice, Bosnian Serb refugees have overwhelmingly opted for Form 2 and nominated electoral districts in the Republika Srpska. But they have not necessarily done so freely.

An international team inspecting a registration centre near Belgrade noted that part of the forms had been filled out in advance, with Srebrenica written in as the chosen electoral district in all cases. At a refugee camp visited by the Independent in Arzinja, southwest of Belgrade, an inmate said he had found the name Bosanski Brod written on his form. "Actually, I'd much rather go to the Banja Luka area," said the refugee, calling himself Milodrag. "I am from the mountains, and Bosanski Brod is swampy territory. I only hope my vote there won't oblige me to take up residence in the future."

The refugees depend on the Serb authorities to provide them with shelter and, for those in Bosnia, with humanitarian aid and know they risk being cut off if they do not do as they are told.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe, which is overseeing the election, has formally protested about conditions in the Bosnian town of Doboj, where it says Serb authorities have threatened to cut off aid to refugees if they do not toe the line.

In Serbia, just one group has been brave enough to issue a formal complaint - an association of Serb refugees from the western town of Drvar which wants to vote there, even though it is now irretrievably in Croat hands. Their wishes have now been adhered to but only after vocal objections.

This "cleansing" is only one of many problems besetting the Bosnian poll process. The election has already partly split along ethnic lines. In much of the Republika Srpska, Muslim and Croat parties have either not bothered to stand or else know they have no chance of winning any real power.

If refugees have been told in advance where they will vote, it is partly because of the logistics of transporting them on the day. The chances are they will be taken by train to Bijeljina, north-eastern, Bosnia and then bused to their electoral districts. None of this was envisaged when the Dayton accords were drawn up. "The idea was that everyone would go home and vote there. It was a nice idea but not very realistic," said Hans Peter Kleiner, an OSCE representative .

Milodrag, the refugee being sent to vote in Bosanski Brod, said: "The only Serbs left there are old women, whom they beat up and persecute. There is no future there for me or my family."