Starting Over?

EMPTY BUSES MAY PROVE TO BE the symbol of what didn't happen in the Bosnian elections last week. The Western allies had hired thousands of them to take refugees back to their home villages to vote on Saturday. The West's logic: for Bosnia to become a multiethnic state again, with Muslims, Croats and Serbs living side by side, the voters would have to choose an ethnic mix of representatives, too. That meant taking people back to places where they'd been ""ethnically cleansed''--that is, slaughtered and forced out--during 3i years of war. So the buses were scheduled, some even for every half hour, to shuttle voters all over the desecrated Bosnian map. The passengers were pitifully few. Election organizers had predicted that as many as 120,000 people would make such pilgrimages. Only 20,000 actually did, either from fear or from lack of faith that the elections could really matter in their lives. By midday in the chunk of Bosnia guarded by Americans, a mere 17 Muslims had dared venture into Serb areas to vote.

No one, especially the voters, ever thought the elections would be fully free or fair. The more modest goal was maximum voter participation and minimal violence, and that, at least, was achieved. More than 60 percent of Bosnia's 2.9 million voters turned out for the balloting, and the only shooting, near a polling station in Sarajevo, produced no casualties. NATO deployed every available soldier to guard 4,000 polling places and in effect instructed troops to shoot anyone who tried to disrupt the process. President Clinton sent his favorite Balkan emissary, Richard Holbrooke, to monitor the vote (box). For the West to declare the election a success will hardly save Bosnia, however. The Serbs and Croats may still pull out of a unified government and establish ministates of their own.

Can peace stick in the Balkans? Most people seem to think it depends on whether the NATO forces now patrolling Bosnia decide to stay past their December deadline for pulling out. According to NATO sources, British and French officials have won agreement from other Europeans in NATO for a long-term deployment, and are hopeful of getting American backing. That seems a reasonable hope; Clinton is running well ahead of Republican nominee Bob Dole and the U.S. role in Bosnia hasn't been much of a campaign issue. NATO defense ministers will meet in Norway on Sept. 25 to debate a longer stay. One top-ranking NATO general reckoned that there would be a substantial follow-on force, perhaps half the current 48,000, that would remain for two years--just in time for the next scheduled elections.

In last week's election, voters faced a mind-boggling set of choices: candidates for Bosnia's three-member presidency, plus the presidency of the Bosnian Serb ""entity'' within Bosnia, plus national and regional legislatures. ""If you go into a reception now and say, "Mr. President,' half the room turns around,'' joked Zlatko Lagumdzija, leader of a Muslim coalition. ""If you say, "Mr. Minister,' the other half turns around.'' Official results weren't expected until midweek, but the winners for the top jobs were not in doubt. The vote split along ethnic lines, with the Muslims backing their embittered wartime president, Alija Izetbegovic, and the Croats electing Kresimir Zubak, another hard-liner.

The Serbs couldn't vote for Radovan Karadzic, their former president and an accused war criminal, because the Dayton accords barred his participation. (Karadzic himself somehow managed to vote without drawing the attention of foreign observers.) But they overwhelmingly backed his protEgEs and members of his Serbian Democratic Party. When the final results are tallied, the legislatures may show greater ethnic variety. But in the rotating three-person presidency, which is meant to be the highest executive body in the new Bosnia, the candidate with the highest vote will become the first chairman, for a term of eight months. That may well be the Serbian ultranationalist Momcilo Krajsnik.

Opponents of the multiethnic state hardly disguised their aims. ""Why not just say it?'' said Biljana Plavsic, the probable president-elect of the Bosnian Serbs. ""Our final goal is a united Serb state in the Balkans.'' Yet on the eve of the polling, Western election officials forced Plavsic to eat crow on Serb TV, reading a statement avowing that her party did not aim, ""neither now nor in the future ... to unite all the Serbs in the Balkans into one single Serb state.''

If the election is to have long-lasting effects, it will have to reconcile the bitter divisions that have long split the country. Do the voters buy the multiethnic ideal? Some Muslims do. Other Muslims see the elections as a way to buy time while their army bulks up, thanks to an American-led train-and-equip program. Says Muhamed Gafic, a policeman and a mountaineer, ""If the Serbs do go for partition, the Bosnians will think, "Oh, the hell with it, we can fight again'.'' If war resumes, it will be against people like Col. Milan Ivancivic of Banja Luka. Head of the organization Serbs created to try to legalize the expulsion of Muslims from their homes, Ivancivic was blunt about what he wanted on Election Day. ""These elections will make sure that Muslims and Croats are never allowed to return here.''

Fikrita Didic, 41 and a Muslim, dared to challenge that thinking by boarding one of the Election Day buses. She and hundreds of fellow refugees traveled to their old hometown of Doboj, now held by the Serbs, in the hopes of casting a vote--and visiting the homes they hadn't seen for nearly four years. But the bus took Didic to a polling place on the edge of town, where she had only a tantalizing glimpse of her house, on a faraway hill. She accepted a NEWSWEEK reporter's offer of a ride home--and burst into tears at what she saw. Windows, toilets, bathtubs, floor tiles and all of their possessions were gone. ""I thought maybe I could salvage family photos,'' sobbed Didic. ""But there is nothing.'' The enormity of Bosnia's bloodshed and loss makes voting, no matter how difficult it was to achieve, seem like a small victory indeed.