Herceg-Bosna Revival

Bosnian Croat hardliners are set to revive their wartime mini-state, in defiance of the international community

Herceg-Bosna Revival

Bosnian Croat hardliners are set to revive their wartime mini-state, in defiance of the international community

Wednesday, 7 March, 2001

Bosnia's Croat hardliners are threatening to set-up a separate Croat mini-state unless the country's international administration revokes controversial electoral law changes.

At a session of the Croatian National Assembly, HNS, in Mostar last Saturday, March 3, delegates supported HDZ leader Ante Jelavic's call for the creation of a self-governing Croat entity.

The decision means two Croat-dominated cantons would leave the Federation, set up under the terms of the Dayton accord in 1995, to form a separate mini-state.

"If they [the international administration] comply with our demands, we shall not go ahead with the self-rule," Jelavic said.

The main HNS demand is that the international administration revokes an "anti-constitutional" law for the election of deputies to the Federation's House of the People or upper house.

The HNS also wants the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Serbs to recognise the Croats as an equal nation and to accept the principle of parity, rotation and consensus in all common bodies and joint institutions.

The Mostar meeting warned that the new Croat entity would come into effect in fifteen days if its demands are not met.

Prior to the November 11, 2000 general election, electoral laws were modified to allow voters to vote for candidates to the Federation's House of the People irrespective of nationality.

The change in the law undermined the primacy of the HDZ in Croat constituencies. It allowed non-HDZ Croat politicians a better chance of electoral success by drawing on non-Croat votes.

Since the November 11 elections, the HDZ has boycotted all institutions, while moderate political parties, aided by the international community, have succeeded in electing Croats to joint institutions.

These developments have outraged the HDZ, by far the most popular party among Bosnian Croats.

The HDZ sees itself as the guardian of the Croat interests in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The international community's decisions are viewed as a direct threat to those interests.

"The Croatian nation is not equal to the two other nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina," Jelavic said at the Mostar meeting. "We do not have the right to agree to such a position and we shall never do so, regardless of all the open threats of sanctions coming from a part of the international community."

The Mostar declaration follows the inauguration of a moderate state government, made up of the ten-party Alliance for Change.

Members of the Alliance were also voted in as president and vice-president of the Federation. Both houses of the Federation's parliament have been constituted without the participation of the HDZ, a move approved by the international administration. Croats from parties other than the HDZ form the Bosnian Croat representation in both houses.

Plans for a separate Croat entity were certainly meticulous. It will have a government, a legislative council and autonomous finances.

The territory corresponds to wartime Herceg-Bosna, which disappeared with Dayton - a move the HDZ leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina could never reconcile themselves with.

Vice president of the HDZ in Bosnia Marko Tokic was elected president of the new Croat entity. Ivo Andric-Luzanski, also from the HDZ and until recently vice-president of the Bosniak-Croat Federation, was appointed vice-president of the legislative council.

The legislative council is to be responsible for the entity's budget and other regulations necessary for financing. The new mini-state plans to raise revenue from customs duties, taxes, and contributions. A coat of arms, flag, stamp and other symbols have been introduced. The official language is Croatian and the alphabet Latin.

The HDZ's radicalisation is to a great extent a response to its declining fortunes in recent years.

Although it won an absolute majority in the November election, the HDZ's vote halved. And with the death of Franjo Tudjman and the toppling of his nationalist government, Croatia's protective attitude towards the HDZ has come to an end.

Meanwhile, the international community has moved to strengthen Bosnia's central state institutions, which promises to encroach on HDZ interests. In February, the Managing Board of the Peace Implementation Council approved the creation of a state-level council of ministers and a state-wide border service.

The HDZ three-month long boycott of government institutions and the Mostar proclamation are a direct challenge to the international community. Bosnians were expecting it to punish the HDZ for clear violations of Dayton, but nothing happened.

Western officials opted instead to avoid conflict with the HDZ, not wishing to contribute to the party's popularity by creating martyrs of banned HDZ representatives.

High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch restricted his warnings to the HDZ on the eve of the Mostar meeting to threats of unspecified sanctions should the party seek to establish parallel institutions.

After the March 3 proclamation, the Office of the High Representatives, OHR, issued a statement saying it held Jelavic personally responsible.

OHR spokesman Chris Bird said the international community would not tolerate such threats, but he was unclear as to what would be done if the mini-state comes into effect.

OSCE spokesman Luke Zahner said there would be no change to the electoral law for the House of the People. He said the OSCE considers the 15-day deadline irrelevant because "illegal bodies cannot set deadlines".

Diplomatic circles in Sarajevo are anticipating punitive actions against the HDZ leadership and senior officials in the proposed Croat administration. These may include EU wide travel bans and a request to Zagreb to confiscate their Croatian passports.

Vecernji List, a Croatian daily, reported an anonymous international official in Sarajevo as saying preparations were underway to ban foreign investment in the proposed entity, to shut down foreign company branches located there and to block the accounts of HDZ-controlled companies.

But there is a general impression such moves would be too little, too late. There is no political room for tougher measures, the time for that has passed. The international community could well find itself cornered.

Amro Kebo is a regular IWPR contributor.

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