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Bosnia, Latvia Set for Elections - 2002-10-05

Voters in two small formerly communist European countries hold elections Saturday. The West is warning voters in Bosnia to resist the siren-song of nationalist parties in the ethnically divided nation. And in Latvia, voters are choosing among 20 parties, as the Baltic state nears its objective of joining NATO and the European Union.

In the past three weeks, Swedes, Slovaks, Germans and Serbs have gone to the polls. Now, it is the turn of Bosnians and Latvians.

Bosnia's elections on Saturday are the first to be administered by local authorities, instead of the international officials who have run the country's day-to-day affairs since the Bosnian war ended 7 years ago.

Under the 1995 Dayton accords, the country is divided into two autonomous entities, a self-styled Serb Republic and a Muslim-Croat Federation. Voters will elect Bosnia's three-man presidency, representing each of the country's main ethnic groups, as well as a joint parliament. They will also vote for legislative assemblies in each of the two entities. The Bosnian Serb Republic is to elect a new president as well.

With ethnic feeling still strong and the economy stagnant, many Bosnians are apathetic about voting. Western leaders, from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, are urging voters not only to turn out, but also to vote for candidates who are perceived as being committed to economic and judicial reform. They have told Bosnians that a vote for nationalist parties would have ruinous consequences for the country's future.

Speaking from Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, analyst Mark Wheeler, of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization, said the elections will be a test of whether Bosnia is finally on the road to political and economic recovery. "Everyone is aware that the time and the interest and the money for maintaining this semi-protectorate that we have in Bosnia-and-Herzegovina at the moment is running out," he said. "And these elections, in a sense, are going to provide, if the result is good, some sort of sign that withdrawal by the international community can proceed in an orderly fashion, and be claimed to be a wonderful victory."

Mr. Wheeler said the balloting is crucial for the survival of a reformist coalition that won control of both the central government and the Muslim-Croat Federation government after the last elections two years ago.

In Latvia, citizens will choose a new 100-member parliament Saturday, and the polls are showing that voters will probably turn their back on the party of Prime Minister Andris Berzins. Mr. Berzins has overseen strong economic growth, and has all but ensured that his country will get into both NATO and the European Union. But the polls say voters are dissatisfied with low wages and a series of corruption scandals.

No party is expected to get more than 15 percent of the vote. So the odds are that a new ruling coalition made up of disparate forces will have to be built in the election's aftermath.