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Refugee Vote Could Help Cement Ethnic Divisions in Bosnia

August 24, 1996

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Veselin Puzic, a Serb refugee from Bosnia, will return to his homeland to vote Sept. 14, but not to his hometown.

Rather than voting in Bihac, now in the Muslim-Croat region of Bosnia, Puzic will travel 75 miles from Belgrade to vote in Brcko, in the Serb half of Bosnia.

``I will vote where Serbs live, for my own people,″ said Puzic, a 55-year-old former railroad worker.

Puzic is one of 641,010 refugees registered to vote in elections meant to pull the country together after 3 1/2 years of war. But nationalist parties, especially the Bosnian Serb one, are accused of telling refugees where to vote in order to solidify ethnically pure regions _ and the divisions in a once ethnically mixed country.

The international group running the elections said Friday it was seeking ways to counter apparent attempts of election engineering. Even postponing municipal elections is being considered, according to a spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

National elections, however, would proceed for a three-member presidency, a joint legislature and three separate assemblies. Some 2.9 million people are eligible to vote.

At issue are election rules that allow Bosnians listed on the 1991 census to vote in their prewar hometown, where they now live or where they would like to live. Thus Puzic, who moved in with relatives in Belgrade, was able to register in Brcko, where he has never lived.

Brcko, on the Croatia-Bosnia border, used to be ethnically mixed but is now in the Serb region and is populated mostly by Serbs. Its future was left unresolved in the Dayton peace accords.

Both sides want the town, and Serbs hope an elected Serb municipal government will better their chances in arbitration.

In Yugoslavia, there are 155,000 refugees from cities now in the Muslim-Croat federation registered to vote. Only 20,000 opted to vote in their hometowns; the rest picked cities in the Serb region.

Authorities ``are manipulating the refugees’ votes in order to create ethnically pure states,″ said Ninko Miric of the Belgrade branch of the Helsinki Human Rights Committee.

The leading Muslim party, the Democratic Party of Action, called Friday for a change in election rules, citing recent registration figures for Brcko. Brcko, it said, will have more than 43,000 new Serb voters.

The Muslim party contends Croat voters also are being steered to predominately Croatian towns.

The party wants voters only to cast ballots in their 1991 hometowns, to ensure the country’s prewar ethnic mix.

Muhamed Numanovic, whose hometown is Tuzla in the Muslim-Croat federation, plans to travel 26 hours by bus from Germany to vote, and to see what kind of future he might make for his family back in Tuzla.

He took his family to Germany last year so his teen-age son could be treated for psychological trauma caused by the war.

``The vote won’t change much,″ he said, ``but I hope time will.″

Overall, 78 percent of the 641,010 refugees who registered outside Bosnia opted to vote by absentee ballot in their pre-war hometown, election figures show. The balance, 138,000 _ most from Serbia and Montenegro _ registered to vote in what they say is their intended residence.

Another 209,000 refugees could show up in their hometowns to vote without registering, if they were on the country’s 1991 census.

Miric, who watched registration in Serbia and Montenegro _ the two republics left in what is now Yugoslavia _ said refugees were not even told they could vote in races in their hometowns in the Muslim-Croat federation.

An elections official at the Belgrade office of the OSCE said refugee voters were poorly informed about the complex rules, and some did not care.

``Many just said: Put me anywhere in Republika Srpska,″ Zivota De Luka said, using the Serb name for the Serb region.

Several refugees at the Belgrade human rights office earlier this month seemed determined to vote in Serb-held territory, for any Serb party that promises an eventual separate Serb state.

``Our votes would be wasted anywhere in the Muslim-Croat federation,″ said Ranko Colovic, 55, who used to live in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. None of the 18 Bosnian Serb political parties are on the ballot in the Muslim-Croat federation.

Added Ksenija Lukic, a 63-year-old whose former home is now in Muslim-Croat territory: ``I want to vote for my own people and our own rule _ wherever it is.″

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