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

Mesic's Olive Branch

The Croatian president's first official visit to Bosnia raises hopes of new dawn in relations between the two countries.
By Janez Kovac

On a sunny afternoon, Croatia's new president Stipe Mesic and the Chairman of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Alija Izetbegovic, strolled through downtown Sarajevo, stopping off occasionally at historic sites and popular shops.

The sight of the two leaders pacing down the street, just over a week ago, soon attracted hundreds, then thousands, of curious Sarajevans.

Izetbegovic was mostly ignored, while Mesic and his bodyguards had problems fending off people trying to shake his hand. So much so, that any casual observer would have problems figuring out which of the two presidents was the host, and which the guest.

The fact that over the last few years, the presidents of the two neighbouring countries could hardly hide their mutual animosity made the situation even more peculiar.

In recent years, Sarajevans have shown similar affection only for US President Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II. "Few people receive such a welcome here," said one Sarajevo woman interviewed on the independent OBN television." I hope that one day we will welcome (Bosnian opposition leader Zlatko) Lagumdzija this way, too. Then I can die happy."

"I don't think Croats know how lucky they are, having such a good president," said another Sarajevan. "He's spontaneous and down-to-earth - so different from our corrupt, selfish politicians."

The outburst of warmth towards Mesic was understandable. He is one of the strongest supporters of radical changes in Croatia's relations with its neighbours, basing his entire election campaign on ending the republic's financial and material support of Bosnian Croat nationalists who sought to divide the country along ethnic lines.

Mesic's predecessor Franjo Tudjman was believed by many to be the main force behind Zagreb's attempts at partition. Before his recent death, the subsequent defeat of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, party and the election of Mesic, Sarajevans would routinely welcome official Croatian representatives with protests and demonstrations.

Mesic's conciliatory policy, together with his outspoken criticism of nationalists and hard-liners from all ethnic groups throughout former Yugoslavia, has won him support among Sarajevans. Though Tudjman would be astonished at the grandiose reception accorded his successor, for many Bosnians and western officials, it was simply high time that Bosnia got a friendlier neighbour.

During his two-day visit, Mesic stressed in several interviews with Bosnian media that the Bosnian Croat para-state's institutions can no longer exist. Croatia, he emphasised, would no longer spend hundreds of millions of German marks every year to support a separate Bosnian Croat army, police force and bureaucracy.

"It is not logical that one country finances the army in another country. It simply defies any logic," he said in one interview. Instead of clandestine financial support of Bosnian Croat hard-liners, Mesic continued, Croatia will now support Croats - and all other ethnic groups in Bosnia - through transparent investments and joint ventures.

Throughout meetings with Bosnian Serb, Croat and Muslim politicians and religious leaders, Mesic stressed again and again that a new page has been turned in Croatia's relations with Bosnia.

Though nobody really expected the first official visit of the new Croatian president to produce many concrete results, Mesic and the Bosnian tripartite presidency did in fact conclude several important agreements. These included the instant removal of any physical and political obstacles blocking the resumption of railway traffic between the two countries, and an agreement regarding mutual representations of the two countries in their diplomatic and consular offices abroad.

According to this deal, Bosnia will represent Croatian interests in its embassies in Middle Eastern countries where Croatia has no diplomatic offices. Similarly, Croatian embassies will be open for Bosnian citizens in South American countries where Bosnia has no representation.

Mesic and the Bosnian presidency also laid the groundwork for future meetings to solve other outstanding issues between the countries, such as dual citizenship, social security and pensions, and border disputes.

Coupled with the defeat of hardliners in the recent Croatian elections, and a power struggle in the nationalist HDZ party, hawkish Bosnian Croats have suffered several political blows.

But though Mesic's visit made it clear their days of easy living on Croatian taxpayers' money and political support were over, some elements in the Bosnian Croat HDZ are adopting even more extreme positions. For them, pushing for a separate Croat entity in Bosnia is the only way to ensure their survival.

Janez Kovac is a regular contributor to IWPR from Sarajevo.

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