Serbs undermine Bosnian poll with 'electoral cleansing'

Andrew Gumbel in Belgrade reports on the threat to Dayton peace accords
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The Independent Online
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, 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 to reunite Bosnia's divided ethnic groups.

"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."

There are complex rules for refugee voters, who make up at least half Bosnia's 3.5 million electorate. In theory, refugees can either vote where they were registered in a 1991 census, or nominate new electoral districts for themselves.

Bosnian Serb refugees have overwhelmingly opted for the second option, nominating 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 in in advance, with Srebrenica written in as the chosen electoral district. At a refugee camp visited by the Independent in Arzinja, south west 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," he said. "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 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 that in the Bosnian town of Doboj, Serb authorities have threatened to cut off aid if refugees 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.

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.