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Bosnian Croats In Crisis

With the Croatian president near death and the ruling party facing electoral defeat, the Bosnian Croat sister party is also in disarray.
By Janez Kovac

The political scene in Bosnia is on the verge of profound change once again as the ruling Bosnian Croat party struggles to hold together amidst rumours of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman's imminent death and a likely defeat for his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party in the Croat elections scheduled for December 22.

International and local analysts are in a quandary as to the likely implications - some argue the defeat of the HDZ in Croatia and Bosnia could be a good sign, others fear a hard-line backlash in an ensuing power struggle.

"All options are open now," said one western diplomat. "The only thing I know for sure is that the political winter and spring in Bosnia will be anything but boring."

Ever since its foundation in 1989, the Bosnian HDZ has drawn power from its larger sister party in Croatia. In addition to financial aid, the Bosnian HDZ received arms and ammunition from its Croatian allies in exchange for loyalty to the Tudjman cause.

According to western sources, Croatia has spent hundreds of millions of German Marks on its compatriots in Bosnia since 1990.

With the declining fortunes of the HDZ in Croatia, however, the Bosnian HDZ has faced a growing crisis of its own.

Prior to, but especially during, the Bosnian war (1992-1995), Tudjman and his HDZ succeeded in gaining a position of considerable authority over Bosnian Croats. His influence over the Bosnian Croat community was and is a source of much complaint from foreign diplomats and local political leaders alike. In reality any agreement with the Bosnian Croats had to be negotiated through Zagreb.

Tudjman has never abandoned his vision of a 'Greater Croatia' comprising parts of Bosnia, with other areas of Bosnia joining a 'Greater Serbia'. This was the vision thwarted by the international community when they intervened to prevent the assimilation and annihilation of the Bosnian Muslim and other minorities. Despite that belated intervention more than 200,000 people died or are missing and some 2.5 million people are displaced around a shattered country.

A process of protracted negotiation combined with international political and economic pressure finally produced some movement in 1993. Croatian and Bosnian Croat hard-liners were forced into some degree of compromise, but pressure for a separate Bosnian Croat entity remains to this day a potent issue within Bosnia.

The coming period is expected to be something of a watershed, however, if as expected Tudjman dies, leaving his party with an internal political vacuum, and the HDZ lose the December elections in Croatia.

Many observers had expected Tudjman to use his extensive presidential powers to quash unwelcome election results. But with this powerful figure virtually out of the picture, the HDZ in Croatia is reportedly in a total shambles as the frantic search for a suitable successor gathers pace.

The Bosnian HDZ has endured several years of internal feuding between hard-line nationalists and moderates. In recent months the moderate wing, led by Bosnian Foreign Minister Jadranko Prlic and Bosnian co-premier Neven Tomic, have enjoyed the ascendancy. And the disarray amidst the HDZ in Croatia appears to be adding to the woes of the hard-line advocates within the Bosnian HDZ.

But there is concern among international circles that Croat nationalists may resort to desperate measures to hold onto power. A resurgence of violence cannot be ruled out and demands for a Bosnian Croat referendum on the creation of a separate Bosnian Croat entity are likely.

Such a move would be illegal under the Bosnian Constitution. But many fear it could be the catalyst for large-scale violence, especially as NATO would undoubtedly oppose such a proposal.

Janez Kovac is a pseudonym for a journalist from Sarajevo.

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