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Polling Alone

Srebrenica Dispatch

The small white structure standing near a few ethnically cleansed houses looked like one of those portable bathhouses that the nato peacekeeping troops sometimes use around here. But on closer inspection, the little bathhouse turned out to be Polling Station Number 105B913, the only voting place in the Srebrenica area for the 28,000 Bosniacs (Muslims) who once lived here. It was, as I soon learned, a fitting emblem for a municipal election that was full of irregularities, but still accepted by the United States and international organizations.

Only 101 Bosniac former residents of Srebrenica actually came to this little bathhouse to cast their ballots in the municipal elections, but this is not so surprising given that Srebrenica has become a synonym for genocide in Bosnia. In July 1995, Bosnian Serbs overran the town, which the United Nations had declared a "safe haven." They killed thousands of Bosniac men. They drove out the women and children. Before the war Srebrenica was 75 percent Bosniac. Today, its population is all Serb.

Foreign election organizers placed the booth a mere twenty meters inside the Srebrenica municipality's boundary line; the relative handful of Bosniacs who voted here could not even see the main street of their former hometown. But, of course, they would not have liked what they would have seen. Serb- held Srebrenica is plastered with posters of the father of all ethnic cleansers, Radovan Karadzic. The town is mostly inhabited by bitter Serb refugees from other places. The rubble of the destroyed mosque in the middle of the town sends an unmistakable signal to any Muslims who might contemplate a return.

The Serbs, however, failed to intimidate the civic-minded exiles. Some 12, 000 ethnically cleansed Bosniacs had registered to vote in Srebrenica by absentee ballot--thanks to rules that encouraged the voters to vote in the places they used to live before the war. The prospect of displaced residents triumphing at the polls and installing Bosniac-dominated governments-in-exile did not sit well with the Serbs, and they reacted by pressing all current residents of the town--including Serbs from the Sarajevo suburbs who came as refugees--to vote in Srebrenica, thus inflating the rolls of eligible Serb voters to 10,000.

Tricks of a similar nature--but even greater extent--took place elsewhere in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity. The Serb Democratic Party (SDS), which is loyal to Karadzic, padded the voter rolls with the names of long- gone emigres, people with phony identity cards, and Serb refugees from Croatia. (The Croat and Muslim nationalist parties did the same thing, but to a lesser degree.) Take for instance Gorazde, the only Bosniac enclave that the Serbs did not overrun. Gorazde is now linked to the rest of the Bosniac- Croat Federation by a sort of umbilical cord of safe passage through Republika Srpska. At the beginning of the war, the Serbs managed to take an area near Gorazde called Kopaci, which they insist on calling "Srpsko Gorazde" (just as they refer to the mountain village of Pale as "the city of Srpsko Sarajevo"). Between 1,000 and 2,000 Serbs live in this ethnically cleansed forty-eight-square-mile area; the voting lists, however, show that there are exactly 6,894 registered voters in "Srpsko Gorazde." Having discovered this, the U.N. refugee agency issued an unusually blunt statement titled "Stolen: The 1997 Municipal Election in Kopaci."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (osce), which monitors Bosnia's elections, has seen this before; during last year's elections, the osce initially countenanced so much fraud that the turnout actually exceeded 100 percent in some municipalities. (While admitting problems with the elections, the osce later certified the results claiming that wrong figures had been used.) But the good news is that the osce's judicial agency, the Election Appeals Sub-Committee (easc), served as a watchdog during this year's electoral process, punishing the parties which committed fraud by striking their candidates off the voting lists before the vote took place. Two candidates of the Bosniac SDA, twenty-one candidates of the Croat HDZ, and thirty candidates of the Serb SDS party were forbidden to run, including every single one of the nineteen SDS candidates in the locality of Srpski Drvar, all of whom were found to be carrying false residency certificates. (The population of Srpski Drvar is fewer than fifty, which meant there were 2.6 voters per candidate.)

The bad news is that Robert Frowick, the American diplomat who heads the osce Mission in Bosnia, couldn't care less about the easc's decisions. On September 12, pressured by the SDS hard-line leadership in Pale, which threatened to boycott the vote, he reinstated two SDS candidates whom the easc had banned, even though the easc's decisions are supposed to be final. To compound his error, he disparaged the easc by saying that it was "not a legal body."

Having gotten what they wanted, the pro-Karadzic Serbs immediately upped the ante. Immediately after the word got out about Frowick's decision, posters of Radovan Karadzic, emblazoned with the logo and name of the SDS party, were slapped up on the lampposts and walls of the entire Republika Srpska. And the indicted war criminal with the unruly hair was triumphantly smiling from every corner.

The easc tried to fight back: the osce's own rules and regulations expressly forbid any party with open links to an indicted war criminal from running in these elections. The easc struck all SDS candidates from the list in Pale, where the violation was the most blatant. However, to give Frowick time to pull his personnel safely out of Republika Srpska, the easc agreed to delay announcing its decision by forty-eight hours. In return, Frowick made a written promise not to overrule the osce again. Then he did precisely that. His ostensible reason: "The security of the osce and other international personnel would have been put at risk." Asked about those security concerns, Frowick's spokesman later admitted: "We have had no threats against our personnel," but "the potential for such problems ... gave us a strong belief that these were important considerations."

Frowick did offer two additional reasons for his reversal, although neither was very satisfying. The easc's "decision would have greatly undermined the osce's ability to implement the election results," said his spokesman. Translation: the osce can install thugs, but if the thugs are ordered out, there will be problems. The final reason was more puzzling: the decision, according to the spokesman, "does not achieve, in Ambassador Frowick's judgment, what it sets out to achieve, it does not move to reduce Radovan Karadzic's influence."

The day after this abysmal performance by the osce, the State Department made its own feeble attempt at damage control: "You would have disenfranchised the voters," department spokesman James Rubin announced. "The time to exclude certain parties from the election would have been many days and weeks ago." Never mind that the proximate cause for the osce's decision-- the Karadzic posters identifying him with SDS--appeared one day before the voting. And never mind that when Frowick reinstated those two SDS candidates just three days earlier, he overturned exclusions decided "many weeks ago."

The State Department all but confirmed that Frowick was acting at the behest of President Clinton's special envoy to Bosnia, Robert Gelbard. (" Ambassador Gelbard himself felt strongly," Rubin said.) This is no excuse. It only means that Frowick gave in to both Serb and White House pressure. Perhaps the audience abroad was fooled, but not the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosniacs were outraged. They felt betrayed. In the days immediately following the announcement of this shameful decision I learned more dirty words in the local language than I had learned in the previous six years of my coverage of the region.

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By Anna Husarska