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Bosnia Runs Through Its Elections, But the Biggest Test Is for the West

After polling, will leaders work for unity prescribed by Dayton - or separate agendas?

Bosnians went to the polls peacefully Saturday and Sunday in a general election international organizers viewed as a welcome exercise that poses a critical test for the 1995 agreement that ended Bosnia's 42-month war.

The Dayton Agreement divided the country into a Serb Republic and Muslim-Croat Federation, but stipulated that the two entities operate under a collective national presidency.

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For only the second time voters were choosing members of a three-party presidency - one Serb, one Croat, one Muslim - as well as provincial municipal assemblies and a president and vice president of the Serb Republic.

Dayton established what amounts to an international protectorate in Bosnia. A "high representative," currently Spanish diplomat Carlos Westendorp, is charged with ensuring that the terms of the peace settlement are respected. He has the authority to overrule Bosnian ministers if he believes they are dragging their feet. In recent months, Mr. Westendorp has acted unilaterally to introduce the Bosnian currency and - of huge symbolic significance - a new national flag.

His position is bolstered by the presence of a United States-led, 39-nation, 32,000-strong military stabilization force. His economic clout derives from a four-year, $5.1 billion aid program launched in 1996. Politicians who promote ethnic reintegration are rewarded with building projects.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) spent more than $30 million to ensure that the poll was fair. A total of 2.7 million voters have been registered, 700,000 of them refugees. Despite a computer glitch Saturday that kept some of the more than 2,300 polling stations closed, and heavy rain yesterday, turnout was high.

All candidates were required to sign a declaration accepting Dayton's terms, and any candidate found to have incited communal hatred was removed from the ballot. The OSCE watched closely for cases of voter intimidation, and worked to ensure equal access to the media.

But the signs are that wartime polarization has yet to dissipate. President Alija Izetbegovic's Democratic Action Party commands the lion's share of the Muslim vote. The Croat vote is split between nationalist standard-bearer Ante Jelavic and the more Dayton-friendly Kresimir Zubak, while Serbs will choose between the parties of Biljana Plavsic, a wartime extremist turned Dayton advocate, and Momcilo Krajisnik, an ethnic separatist. In each community the debate has been over how to defend communal interests, rather than about social and economic reconstruction.

Preliminary results are expected tomorrow, final results by the weekend. The outcome could make or break the peace process.

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"Dayton can be read in two ways," says Zdravko Grebo, a professor of law at Sarajevo University and an independent parliamentary candidate. "One is the very painful long-term reintegration of Bosnia, probably as a decentralized state with strong ... autonomy in fields like education, media, and local government. But I'm afraid you can equally read Dayton as a pretext for the dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina....

"I really do hope that among all three ethnic groups there are ... people who will very pragmatically take steps toward one another," he says. "The problem is that the ruling elites don't want to impose it [reintegration] because they are hoping that one day the time will come to have three separate states."

Mr. Grebo says a modest increase in the share of the vote held by civic parties not aligned with ethnic agendas might oblige the main nationalist parties to seek support from non-nationalists.

Co-Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, whose party is part of Mr. Izetbegovic's coalition, says the Bosnian government has consistently upheld the principles of multiethnicity, and chides the international community for a misguided evenhandedness.

"We showed to the utmost our civilized behavior during the most difficult times," he says. "We did not open concentration camps, we did not burn churches and synagogues down. Wherever the so-called 'Muslim army' was in control almost everything was intact.... All of a sudden, it's as if there were no victims."

With the elections out of the way, a host of outstanding issues can be tackled. Pressure will increase for the arrest of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, former Serb leaders now war-crimes fugitives, and Westendorp will be able to exert more pressure on all three sides for a return of more than a million refugees.

But though Sarajevo has begun a recovery that many hope can be extended, difficulties loom. "Bosnia-Herzegovina didn't have a chance to experience a transition from communism to market democracy," Grebo notes. "A new ... political elite took power under cover of the war.... It's madness to believe that the people who were warlords can achieve a just and lasting peace."

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