With the grim realities in Bosnia outweighing an optimistic U.S. political calendar, Western officials bowed to the inevitable Tuesday and postponed next month’s Bosnian municipal elections until at least next spring.
The decision to delay the potentially explosive local voting - for the second time - essentially ensures that the United States and its NATO allies will have to maintain a substantial peacekeeping force in Bosnia through next year.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon put a positive spin on the latest Bosnian setback by noting that it might be possible to speed up the withdrawal of some American troops because they no longer are needed to police elections next month.
Officials said they expect all but 2,500 of the 15,600 American troops in Bosnia to be home by Christmas.
“I anticipate they will come out on schedule, possibly even ahead of schedule,” Bacon said.
To protect withdrawing American troops, the United States is sending a temporary “covering force” of 7,500 Army troops and military police.
American officers and diplomats say they expect that force from the 1st Infantry Division in Germany will remain until the end of 1997.
With the Nov. 5 election drawing near, Clinton administration officials have been wary of discussing planning for a follow-on peacekeeping force, which might be seen as a retreat from President Clinton’s pledge to end the military mission and withdraw American troops after a year.
But his promise didn’t rule out a possible new NATO operation with American troops taking part.
The Bosnian municipal elections will require large numbers of troops to help with security and logistics for thousands of polling stations and as many as 2.9 million voters.
Many NATO officials are convinced that Bosnia will remain divided into ethnic enclaves for the foreseeable future, which is likely to require a continuing NATO role to avert renewed warfare. European nations have been talking recently about maintaining NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia for the next two years.
“The NATO peacekeeping operation in Bosnia has been a military success but a political failure,” said John Hillen of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
When international officials called off Bosnia’s local elections Tuesday for the second time this year, they blamed political obstruction from all three nationalist factions - but in particular, the Bosnian Serbs.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Frowick, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to Bosnia, said at a news conference that the elections cannot be held because of “continuing political problems in municipalities across Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
The municipality Frowick has had the most trouble with is Pale, the Bosnian Serb capital.
Biljana Plavsic, newly elected president of the Republika Srpska, told Frowick two weeks ago that the Serbs would hold their own local elections without OSCE oversight. Under questioning, Frowick said Plavsic’s refusal to go forward with the elections was “decisive.”
The Serbs oppose OSCE-supervised elections because Muslims and Croats would be able to vote and regain political control in nearly a dozen major towns, now in Serb territories, where they were a majority of the population before the war.
The Serb nationalist regime, reelected in September, fears this would be only the first step in a process of returning nearly 1 million Muslims and Croats ousted by Serb “ethnic cleansing” during 43 months of war.
Municipal elections originally were to have been held at the same time as national elections Sept. 14 but were postponed in August when it became clear that the Serbs had committed large-scale fraud in the registration of Serb refugees.
Western diplomats in Bosnia breathed a sigh of relief when Frowick announced the latest postponement, averting a political crisis. With the exception of the Germans and the Americans, virtually every other major player in the international community opposed November elections.