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Bosnian Moderates Oust Nationalists

A new moderate coalition has wrested control from hardline nationalists in Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation.
By Janez Kovac

Old guard nationalists in Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation, to their own surprise and fury, have been nudged aside by a new coalition of moderates brought together by complex manoeuvres that followed last November's general election.


The newly created Alliance for Change mustered a slim but clear majority in the Federation parliament to outvote the two hitherto dominant Croat and Muslim nationalist parties, the Croat Democratic Union, HDZ, and the Party of Democratic Action, SDA.


The 10-party alliance swiftly appointed two of its own people to become speaker and deputy speaker of the parliament at a session on January 15. The HDZ party walked out in a rage but the alliance went ahead and appointed another of its members parliamentary secretary.


Events of this sort are unprecedented in recent Bosnian history. They provided another small signal that the country could be casting aside the strife that has plagued it since the break up of Yugoslavia.


In the November 11 elections, for the first time since 1996, all three ruling nationalist parties together received less than 50 per cent of the vote. Nationalists won absolute majorities in only two out of ten cantons in the Muslim-Croat Federation, but lost their ruling majority at all other levels of power.


The leading opposition group, the Social Democratic Party, SDP, came out of the election with the biggest number of votes but failed to achieve an absolute majority. There followed a protracted struggle between the SDP and the nationalist parties to woo support from a gallery of smaller parties.


In the other half of Bosnia, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, the picture was more complex. There, the nationalist Serb Democratic Party, SDS, won over 30 per cent of general election votes.


The party is alleged to have had a role in atrocities and was established by the No. 1 war-crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, but the new leadership claims the SDS has reformed itself along moderate lines.


The election established a leading opposition figure in Republika Srpska, the popular economy professor Mladen Ivanic and his Party of Democratic Progress, PDP, as the second-strongest political force among Bosnian Serbs.


At the first session of the new Republika Srpska parliament in mid-December, Ivanic and his PDP party voted together with SDS in the election of the new parliamentary leadership. The RS President and senior SDS official Mirko Sarovic rewarded Ivanic by appointing him premier-designate.


But only a week later Ivanic changed his strategy. At the opening session of Bosnia's state parliament, which embraces both Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation, he and other PDP deputies voted against the SDS. They opted instead for the Social Democratic Party, SDP, along with other Federation opposition parties, to give the state parliament a new moderate leadership.


This left Ivanic in a difficult position. On the state level, he and his PDP will support the Alliance for Change while he co-operates with the SDS in Republika Srpska.


Some Western governments, especially the US, do not believe the SDS has really changed. They warned Ivanic that any SDS representation in the new government would mean the end of western financial support for Republika Srpska.


On January 12, Ivanic presented a new government with only one openly declared SDS candidate, Goran Popovic the Minister for Trade and Tourism. But other political parties claimed he had up to six SDS sympathisers in his team. In response to Western objections, Ivanic replaced Popovic as Minister for Trade and Tourism and asked all ministers to freeze their party membership while in office.


Despite the complaints about Ivanic's choice of ministers, most of those he's proposed appear to be technocrats or professionals with little or no political involvement. For the first time since 1996, there is also one Muslim minister in the planned administration. Ivanic said he will promote more non-Serbs to become deputy ministers.


While all this parliamentary jostling was going on, Bosnia's top international mediator, Wolfgang Petritsch, stepped in on January 12 with a decision to establish a Constitutional Commission in each half of Bosnia.


The two 16-person commissions will include representatives of Bosnian Serbs, Croats, Bosniak-Muslims and other ethnic groups. Their job will be to protect the interests of all ethnic groups until the new parliaments amend their constitutions as ordered last year by the Constitutional Court.


The court had ruled that all ethnic groups have equal rights across the country. Petritsch's decision obliges new legislators in Bosnia to put this ruling into effect by March this year. Until that date Petritsch's Constitutional Commissions will have broad powers to quash any law or government decision deemed to prejudice ethnic rights.


It was the Petritsch decision which enabled the Federations's SDP to put together its Alliance for Change. Many smaller parties had demanded a guarantee of human rights before throwing their lot in with the SDP. The day after Petritsch's announcement, nine smaller parties agreed to join the alliance which pushed the nationalists out of power in the Federation parliament.


To win this vote, the alliance needed support from the Democratic People's Union, DNZ, the party established by the Muslim tycoon Fikret Abdic.


After the session, HDZ leaders held an emergency meeting and announced they will boycott the work of the Federation parliament. The party insisted its candidate, Martin Raguz, should be appointed chairman of the new Council of Ministers in the all-Bosnia state government.


Two other nationalist parties, the Serb SDS and Muslim SDA, announced they will support the HDZ candidate. These former battlefield enemies showed no hesitation in lining up together to save their political skins from the newly emerging moderates.


Sources close to the HDZ leadership said that if the party is again defeated by the Alliance over appointments to the new Council of Ministers, then it will very likely proclaim a separate, Bosnian Croat entity.


Such growling from the nationalist parties indicates they are seriously alarmed at the prospect of losing power. But nobody doubts the Alliance for Change will face many new obstacles in its mission to put Bosnia on the path to reform and recovery.


Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor


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