Bosnian Croat Separatism Threat

The beleaguered HDZ party in Bosnia appears to be preparing the ground for the establishment of a Bosnian Croat state

Bosnian Croat Separatism Threat

The beleaguered HDZ party in Bosnia appears to be preparing the ground for the establishment of a Bosnian Croat state

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, has caused a political storm by calling for a referendum on the rights of Croats in Bosnia on general election day.


It's the latest in a fierce campaign by Bosnian Croat hard-liners against what they see as their loss of influence in the Muslim-Croat federation.


The referendum appears to be an HDZ attempt to prepare the ground for the establishment of a separate Bosnian Croat entity if the results of the general election on November 11 don't go its way.


Under the Dayton agreement which ended the Bosnian war, the country was divided into the Republika Srpska and a Muslim-Croat Federation. A delicate patchwork of voting rules guaranteed the rights of each community.


What has now jolted the HDZ into action are new Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, electoral rules for the upper house of the federal parliament.


Under the old system Croats could vote only for Croats and Muslims only for Muslims. The new rules state that cantonal assembly deputies can choose any federal parliamentary candidate.


This means that the HDZ will lose its monopoly over Croat votes. Although the number of Croats represented in the assembly will remain the same, they are likely to be representatives of other parties.


HDZ leaders believe the changes will diminish their influence in the federation and prevent them from blocking parliamentary work as they did in the past.


Following the decision to call a referendum, HDZ posters appeared throughout the federation proclaiming "Decision or Extermination". The campaign has been condemned by non-HDZ groups as "calling for lynch law and apartheid".


The President of the HDZ and a member of the Bosnian Presidency, Ante Jelavic, denounced the new OSCE rules as "anti-constitutional and aimed at taking the power away from the Croats in BiH [Bosnia-Herzegovina]".


In a subsequent pre-election rally on Sunday, Jelavic also said "the federation is dead."


During the war, the HDZ leadership proclaimed their own mini-state, Herzeg Bosna. It was closely linked to Croatia proper, sharing the same currency, state symbols, media, as well as pensions and salaries.


After Dayton, Bosnian Croats formally entered joint institutions with the Muslims, but the HDZ BiH retained links with the HDZ in Croatia, hoping that they could eventually unite.


The Bosnian HDZ used to rely on the Croatian leadership when President Franjo Tudjman was still alive.


With the defeat of the HDZ in Croatia, the new authorities in Zagreb told the Bosnian Croats to turn towards Sarajevo. That dramatically weakened the position of the nationalistic HDZ, which now sees the referendum as its only chance to survive.


Immediately after the OSCE announced the new rule changes, Jelavic complained to the current Croatian leadership.


President Stipe Mesic responded curtly that Bosnian Croats should sort out their problems with the Sarajevo authorities, and confirmed that he was opposed to the referendum.


"Those who want a referendum still do not understand what is going on in Bosnia and Herzegovina," Mesic said. "They do not understand there is no more war and there is no more division, that Bosnia is a country within its internationally recognised borders which has its own state institutions."


Other Zagreb officials, including Prime Minister Ivica Racan and Speaker of the National Assembly Zlatko Tomic appeared concerned over the Bosnian HDZ complaint, but calmed down after OSCE head of mission Robert Barry travelled to Zagreb to explain the situation.


This episode has further weakened the HDZ position in Bosnia. According to a survey by the United Nations Development Programme, the party's influence over Bosnian Croat voters has fallen below 40 per cent.


The HDZ referendum declaration was immediately rejected by several Croatian opposition parties.


The two main Catholic Church officials in Bosnia, Archbishop Vinko Puljic and the head of Franciscans, Fra Mijo Dzolan, surprisingly attended a meeting late last month in Novi Travnik when a decision on the plebiscite was made.


Some Catholic officials later tried to explain that the churchmen were only there as guests. But the HDZ exploited their presence as formal support for the referendum.


The incident created new divisions within the Catholic Church in Bosnia as some prominent priests publicly criticized their own archbishop for meddling with politics and hard-liners.


The position of the International Community on this issue is clear. The OSCE as well as Bosnia's top international mediator, High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch, stressed that a referendum organised by a political party would have no legal validity.


In his letter to Jelavic, Robert Barry warned the HDZ that it does not have an exclusive right to represent the Croatian people in the lower house of the federal parliament.


Amra Kebo is an IWPR contributor


Support our journalists