THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR EUROPEAN AFFAIRS AT NSC, SANDY VERSHBOW
The Briefing Room
12:45 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
Q Do you have polling results?
MR. MCCURRY: We have with us today -- and it is a great honor to have him here -- Sandy Vershbow who is the Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council. I've asked him to come in given that tomorrow the people of Bosnia will at long last take a step forward in the process of implementing the Dayton Accords and reaching for the goals of a democratic society that we labored so hard to help them achieve. Because of that, I thought it would be useful for him to talk a little bit about our government's work to make sure that these elections are effective.
Sandy, we're delighted to have you here.
MR. VERSHBOW: Thanks very much. In case you hadn't noticed, having all your fun on the campaign trail, there is going to be an election in Bosnia tomorrow. And we think it is a critical step in the continuing process of implementing the Dayton Peace Accords.
Many people have described these elections as the end of the Dayton process, but really it is only an important milestone -- an essential step toward recreating a single Bosnian state, as envisaged in the Dayton Agreement itself. We've been working very hard over the past few months with the rest of the international community to help create an environment that is conducive to holding a democratic election. Of course, ending the war and securing the peace, which was IFOR's main mission, has created the basic conditions for these elections, and indeed, it's important to remember how different the situation is today compared to what it was a year ago when NATO was engaged in a bombing campaign. We had continued bloody conflict, and at that point, little prospect of bringing this to a peaceful conclusion.
So we've come a long way, but this is by no means the end of the road. The conditions have improved steadily since the date for the elections was set in June by Ambassador Frowich, the OSCE's representative. Certainly no one would pretend that the conditions are perfect; that's hard to imagine that they ever could be after 40 years of dictatorship and four years of war. And there will, inevitably, be some disruptions and some problems. But we have succeeded in creating the conditions in which we think the balloting can go forward.
IFOR has played a critical and central role in supporting the OSCE in establishing secure routes for voters to get to the different polling stations. We have worked to ensure an opening up of the media. The open broadcast network began broadcasting last week, which has given opposition parties a louder voice in the final days of the campaign. Freedom of movement has improved. It's certainly not anywhere near satisfactory, but we think that, with IFOR's support and the involvement of the international police task force, all those who want to vote and want to cross from one entity into the other will be able to do so.
I think it's important to remember that the Bosnian people are very keen on seeing these elections go forward on time. There's tremendous enthusiasm on the ground in Sarajevo and in the rest of Bosnia today. John Kornblum and his team, and Dick Holbrooke and his presidential delegation have arrived in the midst of rallies and a lot of last-minute electioneering. So the vote is on course for tomorrow.
And then we move on to the next important step, perhaps even harder than bringing off these elections; namely, the establishment of the common institutions that will try to knit together the two entities -- the Federation and the Republic of Srpska -- and try to bring into reality what was agreed upon on paper at Dayton, namely the preservation of a single Bosnian state.
We will, of course, stay very much engaged in the next step, as we've been all the way along. It's clear that the parties are not able to fully realize the Dayton vision without a lot of international assistance and international pressure. And in the weeks ahead we intend to be very much in the middle of the process of bringing into reality the national government institutions -- the presidency, the parliament, so that we can move ahead to bringing a lasting peace to Bosnia.
So with that, let me take your questions.
Q When do you think they'll have the results of the election? Will it be Sunday?
MR. VERSHBOW: I think it will be a little bit longer than that. Some preliminary returns may be in, but our expectation is that the presidential election results will be in in two to three days; the parliamentary elections, both the national and the entity parliaments, may not be available for about a week.
But we expect that there will be an assessment by Ambassador Frowich on the election process itself, which -- probably by Sunday in terms of his declaring that an effective democratic election has taken place.
Q Now, all parties are participating and cooperating as you expect or hope?
MR. VERSHBOW: They've been cooperating for the most part. There have been problems. We've had to come down hard and the OSC has been very firm in coming down hard on some of the parties that have been engaged in rhetoric that is incompatible with Dayton. The calls by the Serbs for secession, for establishing their own state have been subject of warnings by the OSCE. John Kornblum met with Mrs. Plavsic, the Bosnian Serb President, last night, and stressed that secession is simply incompatible with the Dayton Accords. And she reassured him that she may have gotten carried away with election rhetoric; she wants to work within the Dayton process and accepts that the Serbs' goals can and should be achieved by making Dayton work. So we're going to hold her at her word, in that case, rather than what she said the day before.
Q Is it realistic to assume that these elections are going to really confirm the ethnic divisions that a lot of people are expecting?
MR. VERSHBOW: I think it is clear that the nationalist parties remain the most popular among all three ethnic communities in Bosnia. Again, that's not surprising. The passions that led to this war have not subsided, and these parties also have been doling out the patronage for several years. So we're not expecting any dramatic surprises, but that doesn't in any way invalidate the importance of having this election. One can't decide that an election shouldn't be held just because one isn't entirely happy with the results.
But the important thing is that these are the parties that were there at Dayton in signing on to the basic vision of a single Bosnian state, and so we will continue to press them to bring it into reality.
Q What will we be doing? Will we be monitoring there and here? We'll be watching the election?
MR. VERSHBOW: Please repeat.
Q Will you be going to Bosnia?
MR. VERSHBOW: I will be here minding the store. The rest, just about the rest of the U.S. government working on Bosnia is on the scene.
Q How many people do we have on the scene?
MR. VERSHBOW: I couldn't give you the tally. There's several dozen Americans participating as monitors under the OSCE's auspices. John Kornbloom is there; Bill Montgomery, our special coordinator for Bosnian implementation, is part of the Holbrooke delegation, which numbers about 20 people. A lot of other people from the government are there helping out.
Q Well, when you say -- apparently you expect to be not, in your words, entirely happy with the results. What results -- if these nationalist parties you expect are the winners, what is the impact of that on your efforts to then create this integrated Bosnian state?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, as I said, these are the parties that agreed to the Dayton approach, which was, one must remember, a compromise. It creates a modified constitution under which a single Bosnian state is preserved and national government institutions are created, but two entities with a high degree of autonomy are also created, so -- that marry the Bosnian Muslim commitment to preserving Bosnia as a single state with the realities of the war, which has led to a certain degree of separation, and the Serbs' desire for a high degree of autonomy.
So we will continue to work within that framework and continue to hold the parties to that. This, as we've said, is only one step in a long process of democratization in Bosnia. These institutions will be created for a period of two years; there will be follow-on elections two years down the road. Hopefully by that time, peace will become more irreversible, the benefits of cooperation and coexistence will become more apparent to people and an even more pluralism will begin to enter into the political process.
Q I know that the steps you just outlined yet to come are called for in the Dayton Accords. Does the administration fear a stray into the nation-building it has tried to eschew as it engages in these enterprises within other countries?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, there are clearly going to be limits to how deeply we get involved. We're not going to assume responsibility for making these institutions work. Ultimately, that responsibility will rest with the Bosnian parties themselves. This is not an international protectorate, as pointed out in the column by Carl Bildt today. But we can continue to help create the conditions in which the parties can begin to get used to cooperating with one another so that they can make the ultimate long-term decisions to make this single Bosnian state a functioning reality.
They're not quite ready to do it without some international support, international pressure. So we will stay engaged politically, economically. The World Bank's economic program was envisaged to run for at least three years, and as we've seen in trying to build a federation since the Washington accords of '94, it takes continuous engagement both to get the parties to agree to take the next step, and then to get them to live up to their commitments.
Q Will the international peacekeeping forces be doing anything different tomorrow? Will they be going about normal business? Will they be deliberately more visible or less visible?
MR. VERSHBOW: IFOR has focused its resources in a massive way in making these elections a success. I think, while they will continue to be doing their countrywide missions and maintaining the cease-fire, the bulk of their forces will be devoted to securing the 19 election routes that were agreed between the Serbs and the Federation authorities, and in generally showing presence in all key sensitive areas so that the elections come off smoothly.
Q They'll be more visible?
MR. VERSHBOW: They'll be very visible. Indeed, I think OSCE has said that IFOR support has been really indispensable to making these elections possible.
Q Would you say there's a significant number of potential voters who remain displaced and unable to vote?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, everyone -- displaced persons, refugees, as well as those who may have settled in different areas -- everyone has an opportunity to vote according to the rules agreed at Dayton. Displaced persons in country can either vote in person in their original place of residence, according to the 1991 census; by absentee ballot; or if they chose during the registration process, they can vote in their new place of residence.
Refugees have already cast their votes in third countries. A very high participation was recorded; I think something on the order of 75 percent of those who registered did cast their votes by absentee ballot and those are now being gathered in secure warehouses. So participation for all categories looks to be very high.
Q What's the current target date for all U.S. troops to be out of Bosnia?
MR. VERSHBOW: Well, we're still on the timetable that was set forth a few months ago. The IFOR mission runs through December 20th, and SACEUR General Joulwan has said we will maintain an effective force right up until that date. So the redeployment or drawdown may begin somewhere -- some weeks before that date, but the completion of the redeployment would still extend into the first weeks of next year. There are already command arrangements being set up to oversee the redeployment, but no fundamental change in the timetable.
Q How many troops do we have --
Q -- news stories of a few days ago saying the United States is committed to maintaining troops there for two additional years. Are those stories incorrect?
MR. VERSHBOW: Yes, certainly those stories are incorrect. There have been no decisions taken within NATO, within the larger coalition or by the United States alone with respect to any successor force to IFOR. That discussion really can't begin until the results of the election are in. I would point you towards a meeting at the end of the month of the NATO defense ministers in Norway where I think there will be a discussion of how the elections have gone and what are the implications, and that will lead to the beginning of an assessment of the different possibilities by the NATO military planners in the weeks that follow.
So no decisions have been taken. Whether some kind of follow-on military presence in addition to follow-on police presence is necessary to buttress the continued implementation of Dayton is still an open question, but we're on the threshold of getting into that discussion.
Q How can you say with such certainty that this December 20 target date will be met?
MR. VERSHBOW: As we've been quite clear that IFOR was a force that was mandated to carry out a specific mission which we continue to believe can be finished in one year. It was to secure the cease-fire, separate the forces, oversee the exchange of territory between the two entities; in short, to implement the military aspects of Dayton which have largely been achieved, and then to provide the secure environment in which to launch civilian implementation, including holding of these elections. So if there is some continued need for an international military presence, it will be a different force under different mandate, different tasks. But again, whether that is going to be judged necessary remains to be seen.
Q Well, would it include Americans?
MR. VERSHBOW: That's a question that has also not been decided, since we haven't decided whether there's any force that's going to be there.
Q Are you in a position to answer on another topic a question about U.S. allied support for action in Iraq and where the French stand now and is the United States disappointed?
MR. VERSHBOW: I'd rather leave that to David or Mike.
Q Have you been drawn into those discussions, though, given your role?
MR. VERSHBOW: Not in -- I haven't personally been involved in the last couple of days. But there's ongoing consultations with all our allies.
Q On what?
MR. VERSHBOW: On the situation in Iraq.
Q Meaning what? Can you be more specific?
MR. VERSHBOW: Let me leave it to others. I'll stick with Bosnia.
Q How many troops do we have in Bosnia now?
MR. VERSHBOW: We still have roughly 20,000 or a little bit under 20,000 troops as the original U.S. share of the overall IFOR deployment.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:00 P.M. EDT