Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnian Croats Flex Their Muscles

Hardline Bosnian Croats are threatening to establish their own state.
By Amra Kebo

Bosnian Croat nationalists meeting this weekend in Mostar could announce the creation of a separate Croat entity, just days after the establishment of moderate governments at Federation and state level.


On March 1, Ante Jelavic, the Bosnian Croat representative on the Bosnian tripartite presidency, denounced the current Federation authorities as "illegal". He was speaking at a rally in Busovaca in support of Dario Kordic, a Bosnian Croat war-time leader recently jailed for 25 years by The Hague war crimes tribunal.


"It's high time to say clearly that we cannot participate in this [Dayton peace] process any more," Jelavic told the crowd. "From today the Federation is a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) national entity, without Croats. These authorities in Bosnia are illegal, illegitimate.


"We will neither participate in them nor shall we recognise their decisions. I invite you all to Mostar on Saturday to make this historic decision."


Jelavic, who is leader of the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, did not make clear what the "decision" would be, but there are strong indications that he will call for the incorporation of the Croat-populated areas into a separate Bosnian entity. International officials in Bosnia have dismissed his comments as "extremist nonsense".


On February 22, a nationalist-sponsored boycott of Bosnia's joint institutions was outmanoeuvred when the opposition block, the Alliance for Change, succeeded in forming a moderate state government. Bozidar Matic, candidate from the multi-ethnic Social Democratic Party, SDP, was elected prime minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina.


The Alliance quickly followed this triumph with a second victory, electing their candidates as speaker and deputy speaker in the Federation parliament's upper house, or House of the People.


But the protracted and heated horse-trading within the multi-party Alliance over the share out of government posts at Federation and state level nearly brought the coalition to breaking point. The long-term price of the deal remains to be seen.


A push from the international community was needed to outmanoeuvre the nationalist obstruction.


High Representative Petritsch ruled that under the Dayton treaty, the country's prime minister could be appointed by the state's House of Representatives, without the approval of the House of the People.


Nationalist parties, especially the HDZ, had been preventing the implementation of the November 11 election results by boycotting the state's House of the People, which has five representatives from each of the three main ethnic groups. The two cantons in which the HDZ won an outright majority refused to name their representatives to the assembly.


Petritsch gave another push by sacking former Federation prime minister Edhem Bicakcic from his new job as director of Bosnia's powerful electricity distribution company, Elektroprivreda BiH.


Bicakcic, a leading light in the Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action, SDA, is accused of misusing 300 million German marks of public money.


On February 22, however, the state's House of Representatives elected Matic as the country's prime minister to lead the new executive or Council of Ministers. Matic quickly secured a majority vote in support of his candidates for ministerial office.


Matic was chosen for the job after the tripartite presidency's first choice, the HDZ politician Martin Raguz, was rejected by a majority of deputies.


Matic, a professor at Sarajevo Univeristy, a director of the engineering conglomerate, Energoinvest, and a member of the Bosnian Academy of Science and Art, was voted in by 22 to 3. Ten deputies from the SDA and the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party abstained. A further seven were absent, including the HDZ deputies, who walked out before the vote.


HDZ officials dubbed Matic's election a "historically shameful event." They claimed that Matic, although an ethnic Croat, does not represent Bosnian Croat interests.


SDS and SDA leaders also complained the new prime minister has ignored them in choosing his new government.


Matic immediately promised cooperation on state and entity level in efforts to turn around the country's crippled economy.


"I shall work for the good of the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina," Matic said after his election, something none of the nationalist leaders of the past ten years have promised.


He stressed the need to establish a self-sustaining economy, an aim which could only be achieved by increasing exports and attracting foreign investment. Indeed, Matic's comments over recent days indicate the economy is his top priority.


Meanwhile, another intervention by Petritsch secured an Alliance victory in the Federation parliament too. The High Representative ruled the Federation's upper house or House of the People could be constituted even though the HDZ was refusing to send along its representatives. This happened on February 23. The new assembly elected SDP candidate Ivo Komsic as speaker and Meliha Alic from the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina as deputy speaker.


With only 58 deputies, rather than the usual 80, the chamber then elected SDP candidate Karlo Filipovic as Federation president. Safet Halilovic, from the Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was chosen as vice-president.


Filipovic and Halilovic need to be accepted by the Federation's House of Representatives before the entity's government can be formed.


Although apparently plain sailing on the surface, the Alliance's success has come only after weeks of acrimonious debate over who should do which job.


A few of the parties threatened to leave the coalition and Matic tendered his resignation at least twice. With ten parties vying for positions, it seems there weren't enough high-level posts to go around.


President of the New Croat Initiative, NHI, Kresimir Zubak, threatened to go when no post to his liking in the Council of Ministers was forthcoming. His protests were silenced after he secured a post in the executive.


The 20-day-long seat-grabbing frenzy presented an unedifying spectacle and led to several news stories criticising Bosnia's new leaders for putting self-interest ahead of national interest.


In the end, however, a satisfactory distribution of power was achieved at the state level, although the Federation's new government has still to be finalised. Tomorrow's meeting in Mostar offers another complication.


Amra Kebo is a regular IWPR contributor.