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In Pursuit Of a Multiethnic Bosnia

The successful return of refugees and displaced persons, not the conclusion of successful elections, should take priority

Throughout the Balkan war, a multiethnic Bosnia was among the most prominent rhetorical goals of the international community. The Dayton accord, which makes significant concessions to political reality, is nonetheless unwilling to abandon the hope that Bosnia might survive as a multiethnic state.

The persistence of this vision reflects the power of the concept; a policy of multiethnicity stands as an explicit renunciation of divisive and extreme nationalism.

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It is an idea that the international community must continue to support in Bosnia. Not only would a multiethnic Bosnia be an important statement of principle, but more important, it is still the most realistic course for the battered nation to take. The alternative is to be left as a vulnerable Muslim statelet, caught between expanded and perhaps still-hungry neighbors.

This said, however, there appears to be significant, and perhaps willful, confusion as to the means necessary to attain a multiethnic state. High-ranking officials on all sides have for several weeks been publicly identifying prompt elections as the most important tool in the pursuit of the goal. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote recently that "without elections, there will be no unified Bosnian state ... and little hope for greater cooperation among Bosnia's diverse communities."

What elections should mean for Bosnia

This is a grave misunderstanding. The successful return of refugees and displaced persons, not the conclusion of successful elections, is the decisive element in the effort to create a multiethnic Bosnia. While Mr. Christopher has acknowledged the importance of repatriation, it remains an addendum to the theme of elections.

This is putting the cart before the horse. Elections should be a consequence of, not the means of achieving, a multiethnic state. People must live together before they can vote together, and in Bosnia the process of living together again has only just begun. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, puts it bluntly: "The main problem is that a fundamental aspect, if not objective, of the war remains largely unresolved. Some leaders are still pursuing in peace the goals they pursued in war." To be specific, policies of ethnic division.

The persistence of these policies has meant that the return of ethnic minorities is stalled. The Republika Srpska is still essentially closed to non-Serbs. In recent weeks, Bosnian Serb officials have even attempted to institute a visa requirement for those wishing to enter from the federation. Within the federation as well, there continue to be serious problems in reintegrating ethnic minorities. Serbs were hounded out of a Sarajevo suburb by other Serbs just a few weeks ago. Given this climate, refugees understandably are afraid to return to communities in which their ethnic group is no longer the majority, and the NATO Implementation Force has so far been reluctant to ensure their safety.

Ethnic tolerance low at ballot box

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With ethnic division still the prevailing pattern, tolerance has little hope at all at the ballot box. If the recent elections in Mostar reveal anything, it is that elections will solidify rather than break down ethnic division. There, after months of preparation by the European Union, the result of elections was the victory of politicians (particularly on the Croatian side) unwilling to countenance a unified city. The ethnic division, a reality on the ground, has been given political legitimacy.

This pattern will reoccur on a countrywide scale in September. The division that exists fosters suspicion and extremism, and this will be reflected in the voting. Make no mistake, the ability of people to return to their homes, not the projected September elections, will determine whether the goal of a multiethnic Bosnia becomes reality.

The excessive focus on elections is a statement of political reality. For the NATO force, and especially the US, elections are a means of validating - and then terminating - the international mission. The return of those displaced offers no similarly clear means of declaring victory. Even in the best of circumstances, it will be a long, drawn-out process. Dramatic victories will be few. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is currently supporting bus trips of prospective returnees across the Federation-Republika Srpska boundary in order to keep some momentum alive. Officials within UNHCR do acknowledge that these are but interim steps and offer no quick or easy solution.

The inevitable conclusion is that a prolonged international presence is essential for multiethnicity to remain a possibility. Only the continuance of peace and passage of time will give people the confidence and ability to return to homes in areas where they are not in the majority. Today's political climate in Bosnia gives no indication that the elections will encourage ethnic tolerance; we will be fortunate if they do not too grievously injure it.

Meanwhile, the real work of creating a multiethnic Bosnia - ensuring that people can eventually return to their homes - will continue.

David Bosco is head of the American Refugee Committee's Sarajevo office. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the organization.

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