BOSNIA ON THE BRINK?
September 25, 1998
A hard-line Serbian nationalist has been elected president of the Serb Republic in Bosnia. The nationalist, Nikola Poplasen, defeated Biljana Plavsic, the moderate Serb supported by Western leaders. What impact will this have on the peace process? After a background report, Margaret Warner discusses Poplasen's election with Ambassador Robert Gelbard, U.S. special envoy to Bosnia, and Christopher Bennett of the International Crisis Group. You can also participate in an online forum about the Bosnian elections.
MARGARET WARNER: More than two million people voted in Bosnia's elections, held over the weekend of September 12th. But the ballots included hundreds of thousands from refugees living outside their home villages -- and it took nearly two weeks to count them all. At stake were all three seats on Bosnia's collective presidency, which is based in Sarajevo as well as the presidencies of Bosnia's two political entities, the Serb Republic, also known as Republika Srpska, and the Muslim-Croat Federation.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
Participate in an online forum discussing the results of the Bosnian election and their potential impact.
May 19, 1998:
Former State Department official Richard Holebrooke discusses his new book on the Bosnian war, To End a War.
March 3, 1998:
An interview with Ejup Ganic, president of Bosnia.
Decmber 22, 1997:
Margaret Warner and guests discuss the current state of peace in Bosnia.
December 18, 1997:
Samuel Berger discusses the decision to keep troops in Bosnia.
September 23, 1997:
National Security Advisor Samuel Berger discusses NATO's future in Bosnia.
September 15, 1997:
Bosnia holds municipal elections for the first time in seven years.
August 26, 1997:
NATO takes a tougher stance with war criminals.
August 11, 1997:
Elizabeth Farnsworth interviews Richard Holbrooke, chief U.S. negotiator of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
July 10, 1997:
NATO's arrest of Bosnian war criminals.
May 13, 1997:
Newsmaker Interview with Bosnian Co-Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic.
May 12, 1997:
Departing NATO Supreme Commander General George Joulwan discusses the mission in Bosnia.
December 20, 1996:
Two Bosnian experts discuss the military and civilian efforts of SFOR.
September 16, 1996:
Richard Holbrooke discusses the Bosnian elections.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Bosnia.
The Web site of SFOR
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Bosnian Embassy in Washington, DC.
Voters also chose representatives to the national parliament, and the Serb assembly. The results were announced in Sarajevo today by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- or OSCE -- which oversaw the election.
Winner of the most closely watched contest for president of the Serb Republic was the leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian radical party, Nikola Poplasen. He defeated the current president of the Serb republic, the more moderate Biljana Plavsic.
A rejection of Dayton Peace Accords?
Plavsic was strongly backed by the United States and other western powers, who saw her as the best hope on the Serb side for promoting the ethnic reintegration of Bosnia. Peaceful ethnic integration would pave the way for the eventual departure of tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops currently enforcing the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia.
Two weeks before the election, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright joined Plavsic in touring an electrical substation. The power plant had been rebuilt with U.S. aid money -- part of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid funneled to the moderate Plavsic leadership by the West. The message, Albright said, was that "Dayton pays." But the hard-liner elected instead -- the former paramilitary leader Poplasen -- had openly campaigned against Dayton's goal of an undivided, multi-ethnic Bosnia.
The results were more mixed in contests for the three-person Bosnian presidency. The ultra-nationalist currently holding the Serb seat, Momcilo Krasjisnik, was defeated by a relative moderate. The Croat seat, on the other hand, was captured by the more hardline of the candidates. The Bosnian Muslim seat was retained easily by the Bosnian most familiar to Americans, Alija Izetbegovic.
MARGARET WARNER: For some perspective on what these election results mean we're joined by Ambassador Robert Gelbard, the president's special envoy to Bosnia and the U.S. point man for implementing the Dayton Peace Accords. He was in the region earlier this week. And Christopher Bennett, director of the Sarajevo office of the International Crisis Group, a private organization that monitors global conflicts. He also is the author of Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse. He's an American who spent most of his life in Britain. Welcome both of you. Mr. Ambassador, how big of a blow to U.S. interest is it that the candidate most favored by the West, Mrs. Plavsic, the Serb presidency, was defeated by this hard-liner, Poplasen?
A step forward?
ROBERT GELBARD, Special Envoy: Overall, what we think is that these elections represented a very important step forward for implementation of the Dayton Agreement. We saw dramatic movement toward democratic pluralism across the board among all three ethnic groups. And with the exception of President Plavsic's apparent defeat , the movement among the Bosnian Serbs was totally in favor of those who support implementation of the Dayton Agreement and against the hard-liners, including the really important victory of Zivko Radisic over Momcilo Krajisnik, the close associate of Karadzic.
MARGARET WARNER: And you're talking now about for the Serb seat on this Bosnian presidency?
ROBERT GELBARD: Yes. We've been unable to make much in the way of progress on the joint institutions of Bosnia, really trying to consolidate Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state over the last almost three years, because Krasjisnik, the hard-line Serb, has been blocking progress almost every step of the way. I've personally spent countless hours trying to negotiate with him on small issues and on large issues. And he and his party have blocked us. What we've seen is that first he was soundly defeated in the election, and second, his party continues its precipitous decline inside the Serb part of Bosnia. That's all really good news.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Mr. Bennett, mostly good news, except for this one context?
CHRISTOPHER BENNETT, International Crisis Group: Not really. I was a little more skeptical. It is progress that Momcilo Krajisnik has been ousted from the presidency. Momcilo Krajisnik has been a major obstacle to the peace agreement; however, we should be very aware of what the constitutional powers of the president of Republika Srbska, the Bosnian-Serb entity within Bosnia, actually are and also what the actual powers of the presidency are. The presidency has very weak powers. They're very weak central powers within Bosnia.
MARGARET WARNER: And you're talking now about the collective three person--
How much power does Poplasen have?
CHRISTOPHER BENNETT: The collective three-person presidency - whereas in the Republika Srbska, the president has extremely strong powers, has extremely strong powers because they're actually drafted by Radovan Kardazic, the indicted war --
MARGARET WARNER: And remind everybody who he is.
CHRISTOPHER BENNETT: The indicted war criminal who was the leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the war. They're drafted by him for him, and amount to virtual arbitrary rule. Now the problem with this is that Biljana Plavsic has benefited from this for the past year and a bit. And we've been happy to stand by and allow her to - as it were -- push ahead. We've seen media coming under her control big time. We've seen a lot more power amassed there. And actually that's been taken away. And what's most disappointing from the U.S. perspective is the amount of backing we actually gave to her, and then see later on that, in fact, she lost -- because as the clip that you showed earlier on pointed out, Madeleine Albright was there just days before the ballot, in essence, endorsing Biljana Plavsic. And that position was rejected by the electorate.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain, Mr. Ambassador, that she did lose?
ROBERT GELBARD: Well, first let me say we obviously have a serious disagreement here, because reading their constitution - and we've been spending a lot of time reading it these days -- we believe, in fact, that the president of the Serb part of Bosnia has very limited powers, basically two powers - which are important -- but they're extremely limited; first, nominating a prime minister and second, dissolving parliament if that should come up -- very typical of a parliamentary system of government and not terribly different from what say the Queen of England might have. In fact it's the prime minister who really has the overwhelming responsibilities as we see in a classic parliamentary government. But Plavsic actually had more prestige and, therefore, was able to accrue more power because she was the one who took the historic step to break away from the hard-line Serb radicals who had been her colleagues before. But the progress that we see documented in this election is the continued downfall of the hard-line Serbs, with the exception of Poplasen. And I think a lot of the reason for Plavsic's loss is first she didn't stick to the message that her associates, the prime minister, Mr. Dodic, did, and Mr. Radozic, who defeated Krasjisnik to be a member of the joint presidency -- namely, it's the economy. She has been ill, so she wasn't able to campaign that much. And I think that some in the Serb community were looking for at least one single hard-line representative, particularly because President Izetbegovic was re-elected.
MARGARET WARNER: You've been shaking your head.
CHRISTOPHER BENNETT: We're going to have to agree to disagree on the constitutional rights and powers of the president of the Republika Srbska. However, what's key here is actually that the international community is effectively making most of the decisions within Bosnia in any case. So to a certain extent the relative powers of this or that body within Bosnia are not that relevant, in particular, since December of 1997 - the international community has just been imposing decisions within Bosnia.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, give me an example of why you think the election of this hard-liner, Mr. Poplasen, is dangerous or is troubling. In other words, what could he do now as president of Republika Srbska to frustrate the Dayton Peace Accords?
CHRISTOPHER BENNETT: Well, in fact, he won't. What he's going to do is he's going to say is I am implementing Dayton, I am implementing Dayton, but Dayton offers all sorts of potential forms of implementation. So instead of refugee return, he will insist on areas like compensation -- so that refugees don't go home but they are compensated for the homes that they have lost. And he is very able to do this. In fact, in many ways this is what Biljana Plavsic was doing already. The thing is though we haven't moved on from ethnic issues into suddenly economic issues. What was interesting with this last election was the way it was almost an attempt to stage manage it, to put these issues onto the agenda. There was famously a series of presidential debates, which were organized and scripted by the OSCE - with questions coming in supposedly from Bosnians around the country - Yadranka - from Bugoin -- different parts of the country, asking people about economic issues. Well, you see, those questions were scripted. There were people phoning the station. I was in the station because I was discussing the program afterwards. And the questions that were coming in were questions like - is Goyer - who's one of the candidates - a Croat, or is he a Serb? This was actually the nature of the debate within the country. And sadly, within Bosnia there is this fundamental problem that the system does not provide ethnic security. As a result, the elections resemble an ethnic census, rather than an election in the classical sense in Western Europe. And a lot of this has to do with concepts of democracy. We have certain proposals for electoral reform, which would involve a blight in candidates to seek the support of all ethnic groups and not just one.
The staying power of extreme nationalism.
MARGARET WARNER: Would you agree that this election showed that extreme nationalism still has a lot of political staying power?
ROBERT GELBARD: It clearly still has some hold, but what we have seen in just the last two years - since the elections of September '96 -- is that across the board among all three ethic groups, albeit in varying degrees - the hard core national parties are losing support. They're not out of power yet among the Croats and among the Bosnians, the Muslims. But clearly among the Serbs war criminal Karadzic's party has dropped more than half its support from 45 seats two years ago to only 20 seats now. The radicals, in spite of Poplasen's victory, have lost support in the parliament. We have seen the Croat member of the presidency and get only 53 percent of the vote compared to his predecessor two years ago getting 88 percent of the vote. And President Izetbegovic's party dropped in their parliament too.
MARGARET WARNER: What about Mr. Bennett's scenario of how he thinks Poplasen could say one thing but effectively still frustrate say refugee return and other tenets of the whole Dayton idea, which was you're going to ultimately build this undivided multiethnic state?
ROBERT GELBARD: Well, first, I'm glad we finally found something to agree on. I think that Poplasen is not credible. Neither he nor his party nor his associate, Mr. Sesel, who is his puppeteer in Yugoslavia, they're fascists, plain and simple, but where I disagree is that as the limited president, he doesn't have the authority in his office to manage such issues as refugee returns and property rights. The current prime minister, Prime Minister Dodic, whose moderate party increased its support, continues to lead the government. He continues as the prime minister until and unless he's defeated. And his block of moderate Serb support led by Mrs. Plavsic and supported by the Muslims and the Croats, clearly has a majority now. What they have to do is stick together, and, in fact, they signed an agreement yesterday to stick together, and that way they can stay in office and rule, and implement Dayton, we hope.
MARGARET WARNER: What can the West and the U.S. do now to strengthen the moderate forces, such as they are, and undercut Poplasen?
CHRISTOPHER BENNETT: Well, I think we can sit back and examine the significance of these elections, rather than just commencing -- they are positive - we should actually just examine the bit of the whole of the policy of the past few years. You've had five internationally supervised polls in Bosnia to date. We are supposedly teaching Bosnians democracy. They have difficulties in dealing with this because they don't have ethnic security within their system. There is this ethnic sense of we're not changing the logic of politics. And I think what's important is that we take a sober view of the election results; we try and build a system which actually offers them ethnic security, so that we have a sustainable peace process, because reality in Bosnia today is zero sum politics. They exclusively represent the interests of their community. They can't come to an agreement. That's why the international community imposes solutions. And that is why we have effectively three Bosnias in most public - most offices, and then it's the international community that draws up the laws, that gets them pushed through. It really isn't Bosnian institutions doing that. We have to work towards a system which does achieve that.
When will NATO troops leave Bosnia?
MARGARET WARNER: We have just a minute left, Mr. Ambassador. What do you think these results say about ultimately getting U.S. and NATO troops out of Bosnia?
ROBERT GELBARD: We're going to have to examine that within NATO in the coming months. But what we've seen is that with the growth in democratic pluralism, with for the first time the ability of the joint presidency to be able to make constructive decisions about the future of the country as a whole, and with the continued growth of moderate Serbs having power, I think the situation bodes well for the future. These situations can't turn over overnight, but the trends are all clearly in the right direction, and we have to continue this process and see it through.
MARGARET WARNER: Briefly on that point.
CHRISTOPHER BENNETT: A more aggressive policy generates results. We've had a more aggressive policy in Bosnia since July of '97, when the first indicted war criminals were picked up. That's what generates the results. And there have been a huge number of results, and that's the area we've got to be working on. And yes, we can push the process ahead.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you both very much.