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

Bosnian Croats Forsaken

Croatia is set to break its controversial alliance with hard-line Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
By Janez Kovac

The Croatian presidential election campaign has given the strongest signal yet that the new authorities in Zagreb will distance themselves from their ethnic kin in Bosnia.


Both candidates, Stipe Mesic and Drazen Budisa, suggested throughout their respective campaigns that the death of Franjo Tudjman and the subsequent defeat of his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in last month's election has brought to an end Croatia's much criticised ties with hard-line Bosnian Croats.


Although separate and independent countries since 1991, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina remain highly dependent on each other, connected by history, geography, economic interests, and many other aspects of every day life.


For the best part of a decade relations between Croatia and Bosnia and, in particular, between Croatia and Bosnia's non-Croat population, have been strained. This was in large part because of Tudjman's refusal to accept an independent Bosnian state and his drive to hive off territory populated by Croats.


This policy, which found willing adherents among Bosnian Croat nationalists, led to war between the republic's Croats and Bosniaks (Muslims). During the conflict, Tudjman sent unlimited supplies of weapons, ammunition and other equipment, and even deployed the Croatian regular army, to defend his dream of a "Greater Croatia" incorporating part of Bosnia.


After the war, Tudjman continued financing rogue Bosnian Croat institutions, which refused to embrace the idea of a joint Bosniak-Croat Federation. Bosnian Croats are currently entitled to Croatian passports and able to vote in Croatian elections, much to the chagrin of Bosnia's Bosniak leaders and international officials in Bosnia.


The precise level of Croatian aid to Bosnia's Croats is unknown, but most analysts believe that it amounted to more than $100 million a year. Much of the money is believed to have ended up in the private pockets of local warlords, tycoons and even criminals in both Bosnia and Croatia.


Croatian support for hard-line Bosnian Croats impoverished Croatia, contributed to falling living standards among ordinary Croats, and sullied Croatia's reputation abroad. Moreover, it proved a key factor in the HDZ's defeat in last month's parliamentary elections with the result that both Croatian presidential candidates were eager to distance themselves from the policy.


Both candidates made it clear that hard-line Bosnian Croats would no longer be the beneficiaries of clandestine deals and secret subsidies, and that future Croatian aid would be directed towards genuine reconstruction projects seeking to benefit all of Bosnia as well as Croatia.


Accepting Bosnia as an independent and sovereign country, both Budisa and Mesic repeated several times that Bosnian Croats cannot view themselves as Croatian diaspora any more, but must seek accommodation within Bosnia with the country's other ethnic groups. Analysts expect the Croatian parliament to curtail the right of Bosnian Croats to vote in future Croatian elections.


While most Bosnian Serbs and Bosniaks and moderate Croats did not have a strong preference for either Mesic or Budisa and rather liked both candidates, hard-line Bosnian Croats object to both men.


In the absence of Croatian funding for a Bosnian Croat para-state, analysts expect the fortunes of Bosnia's hard-line HDZ leadership to wane in the coming months, though probably not before April's municipal elections.


Rifts in the Bosnian HDZ, while always present, have begun to emerge into the open and in the wake of the HDZ's eclipse in Croatia, speculation about new parties is rife.


Last week, the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz reported that Jadranko Prlic, an influential HDZ vice-president and Bosnia's foreign minister, will soon leave HDZ and form his own party, the Croat People's Union.


Janez Kovac is a journalist from Sarajevo who regularly contributes to IWPR.


More IWPR's Global Voices