American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 1998

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Retired Ambassador Richard Matheron reports on the unusual duty of overseeing elections in Bosnia during the fall of 1997. His recountal of the electoral modalities presents a unique perspective of the tortured politics of that part of the Balkans. First he gives us an overview and conclusions, then a personal day-to-day diary of his experience. -- Ed.

 ·  Overview

 ·  A Personal Diary

 ·  ABOUT Richard Matheron

by Richard C. Matheron

Located in the northeast corner of the Republika Srpska part of Bosnia and Herzegovina some seventy-five miles west of Belgrade, Bijeljina is a city of about 120,000. It is almost exclusively ethnically Serb since the departure of most of the Muslim population during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995.

The OSCE had been given the mandate by the Dayton Peace Agreement of late 1995 to conduct local as well as national elections throughout Bosnia. No Bosnian trusted any other Bosnian to conduct "free and fair" elections, and they still do not. Originally, registration was to be solely for the municipal assembly elections in September. I returned to Bosnia in September, but this time served in Tuzla as a supervisor of a polling station for the municipal elections. Not far from Bijeljina, Tuzla is larger and a more industrial city. Massively Muslim in population, Tuzla is famous for its long, heroic resistance to Serb military onslaughts during the Bosnian War. It is one of the principal political and economic centers of the political entity defined by Dayton as the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This political entity is often referred to as the Muslim-Croat Federation. The Federation and the Republika Srpska are divided according to the Dayton Agreement by something called the Inter Entity Boundary Line (IEBL), a boundary less penetrable than most national borders.

Meanwhile in the Republika Srpska , a power struggle had developed between forces loyal to Dr. Radavan Karadjic, their wartime leader, and President Biljana Plavsic, who had earlier been his strong ally. Karadjic, indicted for war crimes by a UN tribunal in the Hague, had not been allowed by the Dayton signatories to participate personally in postwar politics. Plavsic was elected President of the Republika Srpska in his place. Karadjic continued to oppose the implementation of the Dayton Agreement, whereas Plavsic believed it was in the Republika Srpska 's interest to cooperate.

The Srpska National Assembly that was elected in 1996 had a Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) majority loyal to Karadjic, however, and it succeeded in thwarting the President's efforts to cooperate with the international community and implement Dayton. As a result, the Republika Srpska has received almost nothing in international aid for wartime reconstruction, whereas the Federation has received almost 100 per cent of the available pie.

During the summer of 1997, the National Assembly voted to depose President Plavsic after she roundly criticized the politicians loyal to Karadjic of rank corruption. She was undoubtedly correct in her assessment. She claimed that her dismissal was unconstitutional, and she then dissolved the Assembly. The Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly's decision, but the international community responsible for carrying out the Dayton Agreement then vetoed the court's decision.

The complex story continues: A political compromise was worked out among the contending Serb parties and the international community whereby (1) new elections would be held for the National Assembly in November and (2) if the President did not win a majority (her new party plus sufficient allies), there would be Presidential elections, probably in the spring of 1998.

The OSCE agreed to conduct the November 22 and 23 elections for the Republika Srpska National Assembly and called, therefore, for volunteers to supervise the polling stations. In September I had very much wanted to be assigned to the Federation side of the IEBL. I wanted to have experienced both sides in the conflict. This time I was delighted to be going "home" to Bijeljina in the Republika Srpska, where I had made a number of good friends.

Physical conditions for OSCE volunteers in Bijeljina were tougher in November than in the spring, but none of us suffered serious hardships, and the excitement of really contested elections was electric. The results indicate that President's Plavsic's hardline foes, though diminished, will still have sufficient voices in the new National Assembly to require new presidential elections in the spring of 1998. This is a disappointment for the international community, which wants the Dayton Peace Agreement to be carried out in full, and promptly.

I have serious doubts about the international community's ability to impose a political union that is firmly opposed by a majority of articulate Serbs living in the so-called nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition, I undersand that the Bosnian Croat's adherence to the alliance with Muslims in the Muslim-Croat Federation entity is feeble at best. I do believe that the international community, including the United States, should maintain a military presence sufficient to deter a renewal of war and its accompanying atrocities. Today, we and our allies seem determined to forge the Republika Srpska and the Muslim Croat Federation into a single nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina that has never existed historically.

Despite such doubts, I will be willing to return in 1998 should OSCE agree to supervise presidential elections (and should I be seconded by the U.S. Government.) It is a great adventure for an old diplomat, even though I question whether the cost should be born by the international community, with the United States picking up by far the biggest chunk: My round trip ticket and per diem alone cost more than $2 a registrant and $3 a voter. Those figures do not begin to cover the cost of my interpreter and half of a locally hired car and driver, plus general administrative support. Added to this is the cost to OSCE of all expenses for the conduct of the election, that is, machine readable registration forms, ballots, and six- to eight-person Bosnian staffs at each of the registration centers and polling stations.

I am even more questioning of the OSCE decision to subsidize opposition parties in order to foster democratic principles and institutions that have never flourished in the Balkans. Finally, I wonder if we should we be paying the per diem for Czech, Polish, Slovak, and Romanian volunteers in order to give OSCE supervision a less American cast. British, French, and German volunteers in November were noticeable by their absence. Their governments seem much less enthusiastic than ours about running elections as a stimulus for the evolution of democracy.

I do not have my own final answers to any of these questions, but I am worried that we may be trying to accomplish the impossible. I agree with Henry Kissinger that we should at least study the option of a Bosnia and Herzegovina, whereby the population of the Republika Srpska would be able to join Serbia, the Croat population of the Federation would be able to join Croatia, and the Muslims in the Federation create a separate independent state. Once unthinkable because of the intermingling of these populations throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, today ethnic separation, as a consequence of the terrible civil war, is almost complete. International community efforts to encourage refugees and displaced persons to go back to their 1991 homes are stumbling on one legal hassle after another. Whereas refugees and displaced persons have the right under Dayton to claim and occupy their old abodes, they cannot throw out present occupants, who are in most cases refugees of one of the other ethnicities themselves.

Warren Chrisopher certainly was right in calling Bosnia a "problem from hell." Is Dayton really just an agreement, not a solution? I wonder.

Continue reading: Matheron, "A Personal Diary"

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