A low standard for democracy Campaign: Election season in Bosnia's Serbian Republic has been marked by beatings, bombings and blackmail. Even so, opposition leaders say it's better than no ballot at all.

Sun Journal

June 23, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Borivoje Sendic, local political boss for the party of accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic, is tired of hearing there's no democracy in Bosnia's Serbian Republic.

So what if a few political rabble rousers have been beaten up, or if state television never lets opponents on the air. More important, he says with obvious pride, is that "not a single opposition leader has been questioned at the police station."

Such are the low standards for democracy in a place where international observers have compiled a detailed list of recent beatings, bombings, disruptions and, yes, police interrogations, all directed against opposition parties and their supporters.

But beleaguered opposition leaders here want elections held as scheduled Sept. 14. Flawed democracy, they say, is better than none.

Therein lies the dilemma facing international diplomats as they contemplate Bosnia's future: Should elections be held on schedule in a decidedly undemocratic climate -- where opposition parties barely function, and hundred of thousands of voters can't go home, much less go to the polls?

Or, would delaying the election weaken democracy further, allowing ruling parties not only in the Serbian Republic but elsewhere in Bosnia to solidify their hold on media, the police and other powerful institutions?

"Obviously there is no democratic environment as we would like to see it," says Ronald Dreyer, head of elections in Banja Luka for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which must certify that conditions are fit for elections to be held.

On the other hand, Dreyer says, "How realistic is it to speak about democracy this soon after the end of the war?"

Dragutin Ilic is finding out just how realistic as he tries to mount a campaign against Karadzic's with his own Socialist Party. Although backed by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic of neighboring Yugoslavia, Ilic has discovered that Karadzic's people control almost every aspect of political existence.

It was all he could do to secure office space and electricity for party headquarters, given that the ruling party controls building leases and the power plant.

His major problems, however, are contained on a long, detailed list which he has mailed to Karadzic in protest. Ilic reads from the list:

"August 28, 1995. Our offices in Bijeljina are bombed. March 24, Teslic, gang in paramilitary formation throws tear gas into a gathering of 120 and drives them off with sticks. April 17, Belica, two houses of party activists are blown up. May 2, Rogatica, local army commander organizes a group and attacks a party delegation."

Miodrag Zivanovic, head of the opposition social liberal party, says, "There are blacklists circulating with names of politicians. There are threats, blackmail."

The goal, Zivanovic charges, is to "present the situation as unstable, to postpone the elections so that the international community will give up on 'the lunatics in the Balkans.' Then they [in Karadzic's SDS party] will be in position to do anything they want."

For all that's going wrong, conditions are far better than they were before NATO's peace Implementation Force arrived in December, Ilic says.

"The biggest fear of [Karadzic] was the real truth, and that people would find out what was really happening in the Republika Srpska," he says. "Now, thanks to peace, thanks to IFOR, I have a chance to talk to outside journalists."

Outside journalists, in fact, are more interested in publicizing Ilic and other opposition leaders than local journalists, most of whom are employed by state media.

"In a way, there is a complete information blockade," Ilic says. The blockade is most evident on television, where only people with satellite dishes can easily break out of the rut of signals

beamed from Karadzic's capital of Pale.

It is a problem found throughout Bosnia. The various ethnic nationalist parties dominated by Serbs, Muslims and Croats ruling in different parts of the country promote their own agendas while virtually ignoring opponents.

In Sarajevo, Ibrahim Spahic would like for his GDS party to be able to challenge the ruling Muslim Party, SDA, headed by Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. But, Spahic says, "Our political message cannot penetrate the media. Politically speaking, we're still talking about a monopoly."

His party and a flock of others vying for attention are generally limited to four minutes of weekly air time on a Monday evening show.

Making this worse, outside monitors say, is that the messages of the dominant parties promote further ethnic division.

"It is generally perceived there is a theme of keeping the hate boiling," says Duncan Bullivant, spokesman for high representative Carl Bildt, head of the civilian side of international efforts to rebuild Bosnia.

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