Cracks Widen in Bosnian Croat Leadership

The conviction of Tihomir Baskic has heightened tensions within the Bosnian Croat leadership.

Cracks Widen in Bosnian Croat Leadership

The conviction of Tihomir Baskic has heightened tensions within the Bosnian Croat leadership.

Bosnain Croat war veterans this week called on their leadership to turn its back on moves to unify Bosnia.

Enraged by the Hague Tribunal's conviction of their war time commander, Tihomir Blaskic, the veterans demanded that the leadership of the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, boycott upcoming local elections, cease work with the Bosnian joint institutions and call a referendum on the creation of a separate Croat entity in Bosnia by the end of March.

The veterans' demands, made in front of thousands pro-Blaskic demonstrators in Mostar and Kiseljak, may bring to a head a long simmering tensions between ultra-nationalists and moderates within the HDZ.

Blaskic was sentenced a week ago for his role as commander of Bosnian Croat forces, which in April 1993 massacred 108 Muslim residents of the village of Ahmici.

Ultra-nationalists within the HDZ have used the Blaskic sentence as an opportunity to stoke up tensions among Bosnian Croats and increase pressure on the HDZ president, Ante Jelavic.

Speaking at the protests in Mostar and Kiseljak, several hard-liners publicly accused the HDZ leadership of being too moderate.

"Relations within the [HDZ] party are of course not ideal," Jelavic told the Zagreb daily Jutarnji List. "But this leadership has strength and credibility," he insisted, indicating that he intended to reform the party.

As a former soldier, Jelavic enjoys the support of important elements within the Bosnian Croat military. Indeed, it was support from the Croatian Defence Force, HVO, that helped him secure the HDZ presidency in 1998, against the wishes of late Croatian President, Franjo Tudjman.

Speaking at the HDZ's first election rally in Mostar last week, Jelavic, who serves as the Croat member of the Bosnian presidency, criticised the recently defeated Croatian HDZ, his former patrons, for the first time.

"The HDZ lost in Croatia because they didn't realise that the times of social change and reform is coming," Jelavic told the rally.

"Instead they offered haughtiness, endless increases in state expenditure, self-satisfied rhetoric and criminality."

Warning of similar tendencies in the Bosnian HDZ, Jelavic promised a purge of criminal and incompetent officials. In order to unite the party behind him in advance of April 8 municipal elections, Jelavic will probably have to take on both hard-line and moderate factions.

Two influential Herzegovina businessmen - Pero Markovic and Mijo Brajkovic - lead the extreme nationalists. This hard-line wing, which dominates local government in Bosnian Croat-controlled Herzegovina, enjoys some support in the Bosnian Croat military.

This HDZ faction has never accepted that Croat-controlled territory forms part of the Bosnian state as envisaged in the Washington and Dayton agreements. Rather they advocate the establishment of a third, ethnically pure Bosnian Croat entity, which would eventually join Croatia.

Pulling the HDZ in the opposite direction is a group of moderates, led by Bosnian foreign minister Jadranko Prlic and Bosnian co-prime minister Neven Tomic. Both men appear to accept a multi-ethnic Bosnian state and work closely with their Serb and Muslim counterparts in the country's joint institutions.

Although the moderates enjoy international support, they have little influence on the ground in Croat-held territory. Local administrations are dominated by the more extreme HDZ wing and, according to the Office of the High Representative, consistently obstruct key provisions of the peace accord, in particular the return of non-Croat refugees.

A key factor behind Jelavic's new found commitment to reform the Bosnian HDZ may be pressure emanating from the international community, particularly the drive to create a clear division between politics and business.

Traditionally politicians have kept a tight grip on economic activity and political parties a stifling control over all aspects of people's lives. New electoral provisions will, however, prohibit candidates from running for office if they illegally occupy property belonging to refugees or if they sit on the managing boards of state owned companies.

The new Croatian government's withdrawal of financial support for their Bosnian Croat neighbours has made the reform task facing Jelavic more urgent and more difficult. It was Croatian money that paid for the parallel government structures and the HDZ itself.

Moreover, opinion polls conducted in the wake of the HDZ's electoral defeat in Croatia - but before the Blaskic verdict - indicate that opposition politicians like Zlatko Lagumdzija of the Social Democratic Party and Kresimir Zubak of the New Croatian Initiative were scoring around 30 per cent of the potential vote.

Whether the scale of the nationalist backlash against the Blaskic sentence will be sufficient to reverse the Bosnian HDZs declining fortunes remains to be seen.

Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor from Sarajevo.

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