No easy walk to democracy in the Balkans

BOSNIA ELECTIONS; Date for postponed municipal polls remains a stumbling block
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The Independent Online
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the international body running this Saturday's elections in Bosnia, has an underground newspaper circulating at its headquarters in Sarajevo which nicely sums up its staff's blackly comic desperation about the chances of a free and fair poll. The paper is called Mission Impossible.

There have been many misgivings about the wisdom of holding a multi- layered election of exceptional complexity with almost none of the usual preconditions for democratic voting, and it seems 14 September will not be the culmination of the problems so much as a stepping-stone to more.

Serbs, Muslims and Croats will elect a joint presidency and parliament as well as a slew of separate bodies that are almost certain to fill up with members of the same nationalist parties that triggered the war and split the country into ethnically distinct units. That on its own may be enough for many international observers to decry the proceedings as a farce, but the hardest battle - over the make-up of Bosnia's municipalities - has been postponed indefinitely because of fears of the potentially uncontrollable tensions that local elections could cause.

The talk in Bosnia these days is less of 14 September than of the new date for the municipal poll. The United States is pushing hard for November, or December at the latest, so that Bill Clinton can face his own electorate with the - rather hollow - claim that the peace process is running on track and that the US troops will be home within a year as promised.

Such a date would leave little or no time to address the underlying problems that caused the municipal elections to be postponed, and would create an organisational nightmare because of the hard Bosnian winter. Many polling stations would be inaccessible because of snow, and it might take weeks to collate the results.

The international community may have to delay the municipal poll until next spring or summer (possibly putting off an announcement until the US elections are over). But that decision, too, is fraught with problems.

Not only would I-For, the international peace-keeping force, have to stay on in sizeable numbers - something that looks certain in any case - but a dispute is likely to blow up over who should organise the new poll.

The nationalist parties of the three ethnic groups are likely to argue that they should take over from the OSCE since the upper echelons of the country's political structure will then be in place. Most international observers would see that as a recipe for disaster, but the alternative - for the OSCE and its enormous staff to stay for another six to nine months - is costly and not entirely satisfactory either.