Unfree and unfair

September 03, 1996|By Anna Husarska

SARAJEVO -- As every child here knows, voting in Bosnia and Herzegovina is scheduled to take place September 14 because it is part of an electoral agenda -- President Clinton's electoral agenda.

The Bosnian elections, even if they're unfree and unfair, are to serve as this administration's foreign-policy triumph. So, although none of the requisite conditions for a fair ballot -- freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of association, a politically neutral environment -- has been met, U.S. diplomat Robert Frowick, who heads the Bosnian mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is overseeing the elections, is pressing forward with the vote.

He conceded only: ''We had to bite the bullet and make that decision in June, and I don't think it's going to be revisited unless there is a major outbreak of violence.'' Given the brutality so far -- pummelings, stonings, deaths in police custody, etc. -- one wonders how ''major'' the violence has to be.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher recently said the Bosnian elections cannot ''be judged by the standards of, say, northern Europe.'' The opinion polls around here aren't up to northern European standards, either.

The U.S. Information Agency has carried out the only polls published here. They show that ''Bosnian Muslims'' (as the agency calls Bosniaks) profess almost total faith in the elections: 96 percent believe they'll be able to vote for the party of their choice without fear of intimidation. Another USIA poll reports 80 percent of Bosniaks believe the elections will be free and fair.

Professor Muhamed Nuhic from the faculty of political sciences at the Sarajevo University, who has conducted his own survey, said these numbers are absurdly high. But he declined to give me exact data.

It's true that many here in Bosnia want these unfree and unfair elections to proceed anyway. After four years of deceit, broken promises and half-hearted commitments from the international community, Bosniaks realize the elections are the only part of the Dayton Agreement the outside world is determined to carry out. So they seize the opportunity, fearing it may be short-lived. Bosnians do not dare to be picky. This election is the only thing that's been offered, so they take it.

After living in Bosnia for the last four months, in Mostar, Banja Luka and Sarajevo, i.e., among the three main ethnic groups, and speaking the language rather fluently, if ungrammatically, I have my own evidence, admittedly anecdotal, to doubt the alleged election enthusiasm.

A scene in a Sarajevo street: A U.S. soldier was putting up a poster produced by the NATO implementation force. Underneath big title, ''WHAT IF,'' were some photographs and questions: ''What if I want to see my grandchild?'' ''What if I need to go to a doctor?'' ''What if I cannot vote?'' At the bottom was written, ''The answer is: freedom of movement.''

Another soldier was conducting a mini-poll to see the man-in-the-street's reaction to this poster. Every person who bothered to answer had a long stream of complaints. But since the soldier knew so little of the local language, after he asked, ''Do you like this poster?'' he had no clue what the nervous citizens were answering.

Two Sarajevans I watched dismissed him with a wave of the hand, saying ''OK, OK,'' and turning away. With my innate discretion, I peeked into the soldier's pad; 16 ''yes'' replies, zero ''nay.'' It dawned on me: every ''OK,'' no matter how dismissive, was entered as a ''yes.''

Agent provocateur

Succumbing to the agent provocateur in me, I translated a longer complaint by an old woman who was shouting about being unable to visit her former neighbors; her tirade became the soldier's first ''nay.'' But I had other things to do that day and had to move on. Eight more OKs and he would reach 96 percent.

My colleague Barbara Demick had a U.S. serviceman explain to her that, in a cartoon for children about a brave Captain Mir (Captain Peace), the captain is wearing a mask so children can't see whether he's a Serb, a Croat or a Bosniak. Barbara told the soldier there's no way to differentiate the three ethnic groups by their looks. He sneered. ''C'mon, madam, I didn't arrive here yesterday. I know how to tell them apart.''

To determine which part of Bosnia and Herzegovina one is in, look at the telltale license plate: yellow fleurs-de-lys on a blue background mark Bosniak plates; a red-and-white checkerboard denotes Bosnian Croat tags; Cyrillic text signals Republika Srpska, or Bosnian Serb plates. It is almost 100 percent mix-proof.

To determine where a person without a car lives, ask for a telephone number. All ex-Yugoslavs have 38 at the beginning of their numbers, but the next digit is critical: 1 means Republika Srpska, 7 the Bosniak-Croat federation. The only way to telephone a 7-area from a 1-area is, believe it or not, to route the call through Seattle. Some freedom of communication.

Currency also distinguishes Bosniaks and Croats. Although both accept German marks, Croats also trade in kuna issued by Zagreb, Bosniaks in Bosnian dinars from Sarajevo. It's no laughing matter. In May I met a Croat hospitalized after a beating he suffered in East (Bosniak-dominated) Mostar when he tried to pay for his coffee in kunas. Later, I listened to a Bosniak who was stripped naked in West (Croat-dominated) Mostar for trying to pay a fine in Bosnian dinars.

Of course, neither Bosniaks nor Croats accept the rump Yugoslavia's dinars produced by Belgrade -- the only currency that circulates in Republika Srpska. Does Warren Christopher realize how lucky he was to escape unharmed from the grocery store in Sarajevo's old town where, on a recent shopping spree, he paid for that spontaneous bag of grapes in Republika Srpska's dinars?

Anna Husarska is a contributing editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.

Pub Date: 9/03/96

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