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US and Europe ignore Bosnia poll warning

Group monitoring elections believes conditions for free and fair contest will not been met
A climate of fear and ruthless, clashing nationalism is jeopardising the chances of staging free and fair elections in Bosnia, according to an internal analysis by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). However, OSCE officials are expected to bow to US and European pressure and reluctantly declare that the elections should go ahead by 14 September, as stipulated by last year's Dayton peace agreement.

The OSCE was charged under the Dayton accord with preparing elections intended to provide Bosnia with multi- national, democratic institutions. However, the OSCE analysis indicates that, far from stitching Bosnia back together, the elections, if held as early as September, may consolidate the country's division into Muslim, Serb and Croat sectors.

Representatives of about 40 countries will meet in Florence tomorrow to review progress in implementing the Dayton terms. The US and major European powers are expected to propose a September election, with the OSCE fixing a precise date later this month.

A summary of the OSCE study concludes that three vital conditions for free elections are not yet in place: a politically neutral environment, freedom of movement, and freedom of association. Independent media are thin on the ground, especially in the Serb and Croat areas, and it is impossible to phone between the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska.

The OSCE analysis states that in the Serb, Croat and mainly Muslim areas, civic institutions, such as police, courts and local government structures are dominated by one nationalist party - respectively, the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and Muslim-led Party of Democratic Action (SDA). It is especially critical of the HDZ, contending that "in Croat- controlled federation territory ... the ruling HDZ has effectively ensured that the climate of fear prevents the evolution of a political alternative".

According to the study, the borders between the Muslim-Croat federation and Republika Srpska have become more open since the war ended, but most Bosnians do not enjoy freedom of movement. The Serb, Croat and Muslim sectors have different vehicle number plates, which encourages police roadchecks, and the Bosnian Serbs have sabotaged United Nations efforts to set up bus services between the Muslim-Croat and Serb zones.

The OSCE analysis estimates that only a small proportion of Bosnia's 2.6 million refugees and displaced people have returned home to areas where they would be in an ethnic minority. Non-governmental observers say this makes it unlikely fair elections can be held in areas from which large numbers of people have been expelled.

It also suggests that Bosnia's three-way partition along national lines is steadily becoming a fact on the ground. This trend has been underlined since the end of the war by the movement of tens of thousands of Serbs out of Sarajevo, which is under Muslim-led government control, and their replacement by Muslim refugees who originally lived in areas such as eastern Bosnia which are now under complete Serb domination.

OSCE officials are known to be angry with the US and European governments for insisting the elections should go ahead, in spite of the likelihood that they will be seriously flawed. Some officials were shocked when Robert Frowick, the head of the OSCE's Bosnian mission, appeared to cave in to US and European pressure by ordering his staff not to highlight negative developments in Bosnia in their reports.

Other senior international officials, such as Antonio Cassese, the Italian head of the UN war crimes tribunal, have alsocast doubt on the wisdom of holding elections in September. He said that if the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, remained at large, free elections "will not be possible in an environment polluted by war criminals".

But the US State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, said this week that the Dayton accords "do not say that the conditions [for the Bosnian elections] have to be pristine or Jeffersonian".

Richard Holbrooke, the former US diplomat who brokered the Dayton peace, said that if elections were not held while Nato troops were stationed in Bosnia, they might never be held at all.