Croatia Proposes Bosnia Cantonisation

Zagreb puts forward radical plan to outmanoeuvre Bosnian Croat extremists

Croatia Proposes Bosnia Cantonisation

Zagreb puts forward radical plan to outmanoeuvre Bosnian Croat extremists

Wednesday, 14 March, 2001

Zagreb leaders and their Sarajevo counterparts are reported to have discussed a plan to cantonise Bosnia at a secret meeting last weekend.

Croatian officials only admitted to the summit - apparently organised in response to a Bosnian Croat autonomy bid - after details were leaked to the press.

Prime Minister Ivica Racan attended the meeting with his foreign minister Tonino Picula and Drazen Budisa, leader of the Croatian Social Liberal Party - Racan's strongest ally in the six-party ruling coalition.

On the Bosnian side were Bozidar Matic, president of Bosnia's council of ministers, Zlatko Lagumdzija, Bosnian foreign minister and Karlo Filipovic, president of the Federation.

The meeting comes in the wake of a sharp deterioration in relations between Zagreb and Bosnian Croat leaders following the latter's decision on March 3 to declare autonomy in Croat-majority areas of the Federation.

The Croatian foreign ministry issued a vague statement saying the Slavonski Brod summit "was an unofficial working meeting to deal with relations between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina".

Racan was equally reticent. "I believe we should not await the initiative of the international community, but should encourage those in Bosnia who seek a stable state," he said.

But analysts say the fact that Budisa, who holds no formal office in Racan's government, was present strongly suggests that his proposals on the future make-up of Bosnia were discussed at the meeting.

Budisa's plan, which has been aired in the Croatian media recently, envisages the abolition of the two existing entities - Republika Srpska and the Federation - in favour of a federal state made up of 12 to 14 cantons.

Unlike the entities, the cantons would not be allowed to forge special relationships with other states.

Republika Srpska and Yugoslavia signed a special agreement on March 5 designed to boost economic and social ties - a move heavily criticised by Croatian President Stipe Mesic as a continuation of the "idea of a Greater Serbia". " Kostunica's move only makes the situation in Bosnia even more complicated," Mesic said in a radio interview.

While it's unclear how the Bosniaks and Croats in BiH will react to the Zagreb proposal, there's little doubt that Republika Srpska will reject it out of hand. Indeed, after news of the Slavonski Brod summit leaked out, the Banja Luka authorities warned Croatia not to meddle in the internal affairs of Bosnia.

Budisa's plan is nothing new. Ivo Komsic, former president of the Croatian National Assembly, presented a similar idea in 1994. Then, however, the

international community's primary concern was to end the fighting. And Komsic's proposals lost out to the Dayton Accord, which established Bosnia as a state of three peoples and two entities.

The cantonisation proposal the Croatian authorities are now cautiously putting forward is an attempt to respond to Bosnian Croat radicals' autonomy move.

Racan can be reasonably confident the proposal will not provoke division within the coalition government. Besides Budisa, the Croatian Peasants' Party and Vesna Pusic, leader of the Croatian Peoples' Party, are also in favour of the idea. Only the two smallest coalition members - the Istrian Democratic Assembly and the Liberal Party - oppose the policy.

Leader of the Liberal Party Zlatko Kramaric said, "It's not common practice for a politician in one state to suggest how a neighbouring state should solve its political problems."

But Racan was forced to come up with some initiative to prevent Croatian right-wingers, concentrated around the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, exerting further influence over the Bosnian Croats.

Although the HDZ, founded by late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, was defeated in the January 2000 elections, it still exerts a high degree of authority in majority-Croat parts of Bosnia. It's particularly close to the prominent Bosnian HDZ party member , Ante Jelavic, the main force behind the Mostar self-rule declaration.

The Mostar declaration prompted Bosnian High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch to sack Jelavic from the HDZ leadership and Bosnia's tripartite presidency. Petritsch also dismissed three other senior HDZ officials.

The declaration of Croat self-rule in Bosnia is a timely pre-election gift to the HDZ in Croatia. It believes the radicalisation of their ethnic kin could benefit the party in the local elections scheduled for May 20.

The HDZ intends to accuse Racan of failing to protect the national interests of Croats abroad, especially as some within the coalition government have mooted changes to Croatian election laws barring the diaspora from voting. Croats in Herzegovina have proved to be the mainstay of HDZ support in the past.

The Slavonski Brod summit gave Racan an opportunity to gauge the Bosnian government position on cantonisation. Picula is expected to discuss the plan at a meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana on March 15. Lagumdzija meets officials in Sweden, which currently holds the EU presidency, on the same day.

Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor

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