Defiant Bosnian Serbs flock to polls ready to cast ballots for more war

August 28, 1994|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

BELGRADE -- The rebel Bosnian Serbs are holding yet another referendum this weekend on yet another peace plan advanced by the international community. There is little doubt that their answer will be a resounding rejection.

Just how many Bosnian Serbs will take part in the balloting remains uncertain, but Serbian news reports relayed by Reuters said that some 50 percent of the population had cast their votes by midafternoon yesterday. Almost a third of their 1.9 million population is said to be in Serbia -- as refugees or temporary residents.

But the mood within the rebel republic is one of defiance, and the question before the voters focuses solely on the territorial concessions the Bosnian Serbs would be required to make under the plan, rather than the whole package. The Serbs hold 68 percent of Bosnia; under the plan they would be granted 49 percent.

A Bosnian Serb "no" would amount to a collective decision to continue the war and would have wide ramifications. It would boost pressures for lifting of the international arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims. Hints from Washington indicated that the United States is contemplating an Afghanistan-style support operation to provide weapons and training to the Muslims through friendly Muslim countries.

That would almost certainly change the complexion of the Bosnian war and require more outside military intervention, according to military specialists.

Upsurge in fighting

Lifting of the arms embargo would be followed by the withdrawal of the British and French contingents in the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia and an upsurge in the fighting on the ground.

Diplomats and military experts also caution that this would not change the military balance in the short term and would expose the Muslims to severe losses in the interval between the U.N. withdrawal and the arrival of modern weapons for the Muslims.

As a result, as one diplomat here put it, "the situation may demand an outside military intervention" against a pre-emptive Bosnian Serb onslaught. Opinions differ as to how long the Bosnian Serbs can sustain larger military operations without Serbia's help.

The beleaguered state

None of these issues were debated in the run-up to the referendum in the beleaguered Republika Srpska, as the Bosnian Serbs call their state. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic saw no need to wage a campaign, saying he expected more than 90 percent of the voters to endorse his position. Only a booklet titled "Istorija Srpskog Ne" ["History of the Serb No"] was distributed; it includes all major documents and statements about the latest initiative.

The mood in Republika Srpska is one of self-righteousness, defiance and paranoia. Most people seem determined that they could never again live together in the same country with the Muslims.

Anticipating the influx of foreign observers, the authorities have sought to create an atmosphere of normality. Gasoline, which has been restricted recently, was again available for sale at 3.5 Deutsche marks a liter. Cafes and pizzerias, which have been closed since the imposition of the Serbian blockade, have reopened. Markets and shops are stocked with goods. But there is an acute shortage of cigarettes.

Ironically, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's propaganda pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to accept the peace plan appears to have backfired. Belgrade newspapers were on sale in Pale, the Bosnian Serb stronghold, and Pale television continued to relay Belgrade TV's vicious attacks on Dr. Karadzic and his government.

Discontent with policy

There are also signs of discontent with Mr. Milosevic's policy in Serbia itself. A poll of 500 Belgrade residents published in the daily Borba shows 54 percent opposed to the blockade of Bosnia while 36 percent favoring it.

Mr. Milosevic is now facing growing pressures to accept the deployment of U.N. monitors on the Bosnian border. A Russian mediating effort was expected this weekend when Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev is due in Belgrade. Diplomatshere speculated that Mr. Milosevic could agree to a compromise formula under which a substantial number of international observers would be assigned as diplomats to foreign missions here.

Dr. Karadzic, in his public pronouncements, has increasingly sought to portray himself as spokesman for the Serbian people. In advancing the proposal for an immediate union of all Serbian-held lands this week, he said, "We were united until a few days ago, before the blockade was imposed on the River Drina."

All Serbs unite

"We consider the right of the Serbian people to unite is an [unalienable] right," Dr. Karadzic said. "We believe, especially and if the international community tightens sanctions on Yugoslavia, that the best answer is that all the Serbs unite."

He accused the international community of a "dishonest and partisan" approach and said it is pursuing a gradual approach in its efforts to destroy the Serbs.

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