The Kosovo tragedy is a stark reminder of the human cost of civil war in the Balkans, so it is a privilege to play a small role in the Bosnian reconstruction.
Since 1995 the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Elections Mission has worked to foster reconciliation and promote democratic institution-building. Now 20 election officials from Bosnia-Hercegovina have arrived at Essex University for stage one of their OSCE-sponsored training here: a fortnight's study of electoral processes, then back in May to observe a "real British election".
A full programme of teaching, guest speakers, seminars and research exercises is organised. Students will also see Colchester council in session. Fourteen of the 20 students are women and mostly young. Their names suggest an ethnic mix.
We need to be sensitive to their suffering and dislocation. But we also need to be forthright about ethnic divisions, nationalism, corruption and weaknesses in the old system, as well as realistic about the opportunities and pitfalls of the Dayton Agreement itself.
After the first morning session, optimism replaces any twinges of apprehension. With excellent English the students are intelligent, interested, responsive and articulate.
A session on the nature of democracy aims to extract their perceptions of the democratic process. This is followed by a general talk on the functions of elections. To promote discussion, I ask groups to rank these functions in order of importance. Education and participation come out ahead, while accountability is well down the list.
Even more interesting is the sophistication of the debate that emerges between ordering by logical sequence (education as a prior condition of effective representation) or by significance (representation as the heart of the liberal democratic process).
Yesterday set the pattern. The students are very interested in the mechanisms of vote-seat conversion and there are converts to Single Transferable Vote. They had not realised the diversity of electoral mechanisms and are surprised that we do not extol the virtues of British practice.
The Central European examples are particularly welcome. In some areas there is big debate, in others consensus. Quotas for women are emphatically not seen as the way to overcome cultural obstacles to broad-based representation.
A trip to Cambridge broadens the cultural dimension of the programme: a fitting end to a week in which we at Essex have gained as much as our Bosnian students.
Frances Millard Senior lecturer in the department of government, University of Essex.