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Bosnia and Democracy - A Difficult Fit

The challenge of building a democratic society in Bosnia Herzegovina was vividly illustrated at a recent forum in Sarajevo. The goal was to assemble democratic activists from the two halves of Bosnia and help devise a strategy for constructing a multiethnic and civic state on this territory of tragedy.

More than 50 embattled politicians, journalists, civic group organizers, educators, and women's leaders attended the three-day conference, which was sponsored by Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Contingents from Serb-held Banja Luka as well as Tuzla, Bihac, Mostar, and other major towns participated. Discussion was often heated.

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Several opposition leaders thought the recent general election results demonstrated that Bosnia faces a long, uphill struggle for normality and a place in Europe. The September ballot helped to legitimize the ruling nationalist parties and their authoritarian politics. A lack of unity and direction among opposition leaders contributed to the victory of ethno-nationalists.

The frustrations of Bosnia's democrats were starkly on display at the gathering in Sarajevo. According to many, the ruling parties are squeezing their democratic opponents out of the political space while claiming unstinting support for pluralism - for the benefit of the international community.

Representatives of opposition parties from the Serb Republic and from the Muslim-Croat Federation were visibly at odds. Why was so little effort made during the election campaign to harmonize their programs and coordinate their strategies? Suspicions persist that the Serb opposition, some of it supported by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, is against recreating a joint state even though it is not hard-line nationalist. At the least, the CSIS forum helped bring together Serbs and Bosniacs, some of whom had not met for more than four years.

The forum exposed the deep paradoxes in Bosnian society. Liberal leader Rasim Kadic observed that nationalists scored better results in multiethnic areas where fear was played on to divide communities. By contrast, the democratic opposition proved more effective in some uni-ethnic areas, including parts of the Serb Republic. The implications are controversial for the future of the state. Are ethnically homogeneous territories more likely to be democratized in the future than ethnically mixed regions?

Such notions contradict all the efforts of the international community to stitch the country back together. But they must be taken seriously.

Participants vehemently disagreed on whether genuine democratic development can take place in an ethnically purified state, or whether the foundations of that state remain so fundamentally flawed that democracy and human rights are simply unattainable until the government is changed and society is opened to outside influences.

The link between integration and democratization is critical for the survival of a single Bosnian state. It also has enormous reverberations for the Dayton process. Should international agencies be focusing less on reconciliation and the recombination of ethnic groups and more on promoting civic democracy in both the Croat-Muslim and Serb entities within Bosnia?

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Despite deep pessimism, constructive suggestions were made to help broaden the political space. It is important for democratic parties and civic organizations to expand their cooperation within and between the two entities and to overcome their severe personality struggles. Without such a concerted effort, the democrats will remain divided and marginalized.

The Bosnian liberals have already formed a "Partnership for Peace and Democracy" with social liberals in the Serb Republic. This initiative could significantly expand if it gets tangible international support.

Mergers between similar parties will also be necessary; otherwise many of them will vanish altogether by the time of the next general elections. The creation of an antinationalist civic bloc is also essential. It should include a broad spectrum of parties, civic organizations, and local and regional initiatives. The Citizens Alternative Parliament in Tuzla could serve as a valuable model for such activity. And, of course, a stronger mass media, spanning the country, is imperative for dialogue, communication, and civic education.

The struggle for a civic society must be geared toward the municipal elections now postponed until spring and the next general elections, scheduled for the autumn of 1998. Paradoxically, before then Bosnia-Herzegovina may exist in name only as the two entities separate further. This will leave the international community in a dilemma. Should the framers of Dayton operate on the assumption that Bosnia will remain a single state, or should all efforts be steered toward democratizing two separate entities?

*Janusz Bugajski is the director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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