AIM: start

SAT, 24 NOV 2001 22:40:41 GMT

The End of Croat Self-Government in Bosnia?

Plans for a Third Entity in Bosnia Abandoned

AIM Mostar, November 15, 2001

About half a year ago, on March 3, 2001 in Mostar, the president of the Croat National Assembly and Croat Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ante Jelavic, proclaimed the Croat part of the Muslim-Croat Federation autonomous. According to what he said at the time, Croat self-government was to replace Bosnian and entity authorities, considered by Jelavic's party illegal and illegitimate, in parts of the Muslim-Croat Federation inhabited by a majority Croat population. Many analysts, international community representatives, and Bosnian politicians saw the proclamation as leading to the creation of a third, Croat entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Six month later, the same man, Jelavic, de facto announced the end of Croat self-government, in Mostar and in the same hall where it had begun, at the seventh convention of his party. Jelavic said self-government had been an unsuccessful attempt to settle the Croat question in Bosnia-Herzegovina, adding that it was not a solution and even less an attempt to resolve the matter.

During the past six months, however, there has been a great deal of controversy over the issue of self-government, in which many have met political defeat. As is customary, the people were the ones to bear the brunt of this political adventure, as many of them were deprived of their jobs, income, and a normal life as a consequence of the ensuing clashes. Because of this and the fact that Jelavic's words marked the final removal of this topic from the political agenda, it would be interesting to take a closer look at what happened over the past six months, marked by the ascent and the downfall of Croat self-government. The story began in October, 2000, when the OSCE Temporary Electoral Commission issued new rules for electing representatives to the House of Nations in the Muslim-Croat Federation for upcoming general elections in Bosnia. As opposed to previous rules, the new ones stipulated that one nation's deputies in cantonal assemblies could not on their own elect that nation's representatives to the entity's House of Nations. After this decision, the Croat Democratic Union of Bosnia-Herzegovina, supported by some other pro-Croat parties, formed the Croat National Alliance in Novi Travnik. The body went on to pass a declaration on the rights of Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a document that according to its supporters was to finally secure equality for Croats in Bosnia. The Croat National Assembly also reached a decision to organize a referendum that was to be held simultaneously with elections. The referendum was to offer Bosnian Croats an opportunity to say whether they backed the declaration or not.

After the elections and referendum, as well as the forming of a new cabinet by the Alliance for Change of which the Croat Democratic Union was not member, the Croat National Assembly, at least according to what its leaders said, was supposed to begin to play a more important role. But although Jelavic pompously proclaimed the Federation dead and the Croat National Assembly as the supreme ruling body of majority Croat areas, the decisions reached by it had no noticeable consequences. After the elections, the Assembly, according to senior Union officials, was supposed to have executive power instead of the entity parliament, but that did not happen. Eventually, it ended up only publicizing its political stances on certain topics and became what international officials said it would -- a debate club. After Jelavic, at the convention, announced that Croat Democratic Union representatives would return to the entity and Bosnian parliaments, it is hard to say whether it will manage to organize another session.

The Croat Democratic Union demonstrated its disagreement with new cabinets in the Muslim-Croat entity and Bosnia by leaving all government institutions. Members of Jelavic's party and other groups that were part of the Croat National Assembly left the entity government and the Bosnian Council of Ministers after the entity and Bosnian parliaments elected new members without Croat Democratic Union representatives. In the period that followed, the party kept flirting with the idea of returning to the bodies it had abandoned, some its members occasionally proposed a new bill here and there, or would just appear at sessions, while constantly informing the public that the party would return to government only on condition that some of its demands were met. In his speech at the seventh convention Jelavic said Union representatives would return to their seats in the two houses of representatives, although not a single one of their demands had been met. He did not explain why the Democratic Union had bothered to leave these institutions in the first place. Strangely enough, Jelavic went on to say they would return to the two houses of nations, again setting certain conditions which are highly unlikely to be taken seriously or considered at all.

Before proclaiming an end to the Croat self-rule episode, Jelavic attempted to form a government of his own; after declaring autonomy, the Croat National Assembly formed an inter-county and inter-municipal council that was supposed to act as a cabinet. Martin Raguz, former chairman of the Bosnian Council of Ministers, was elected the council's chairman, and the body announced with determination that it would assume all government prerogatives in the region. The council, however, failed to make any important decision, and it is not known whether any one of them was ever implemented. The initial ambition was for it to assume control of taxation and customs as well, and there were attempts at establishing a separate system of payment transactions in the region. But this did not produce results, and the council operated as a body with no influence whatsoever.

After the formation of the "self-government bodies," Jelavic launched an offensive aimed at undermining the new authorities and showing them they could not rule without the Croat Democratic Union. The most dangerous operation was in the military sector, which ultimately was to be the party's undoing. After Jelavic declared the federation was no more, soldiers belonging to the Croat component of the Muslim-Croat Federation's army removed all entity insignia from their uniforms and replaced them with Bosnian state insignia. Then, several large Croat Defense Council units, the first being the First Guard Unit stationed in Mostar, announced they would not follow orders from newly-elected Bosnian Defense Minister Mijo Anic. Finally, on March 27, the Croat National Assembly urged Croat officers and soldiers of the entity's army to go home, promising them each DM500 per month. Most of them obeyed, some of their own accord and others under pressure, and the Croat Defense Council barracks were completely deserted. Defense Minister Anic was not worried at all and signed contracts with people loyal to him. The Croat units were gradually restored, first in the Sava Valley Region and then in central Bosnia as well. To deal with this setback, the Croat Democratic Union began organizing daily rallies in front of barracks staffed by soldiers and officers loyal to Anic. The situation grew tenser by the day, as the demonstrators turned aggressive. On the other hand, the Croat Democratic Union failed to make good on its promise to pay DM500 to soldiers who supported it, and they started secretly calling on the Defense Ministry in Sarajevo in order to sign contracts. Unable to pay the soldiers what it had promised, and under pressure from disgruntled soldiers and officers and the increasing number of signed contracts, the Croat Democratic Union changed its tune. This was further prompted by the fact that the protests in front of the barracks had become more violent. Thus, for example, during a protest in Kiseljak bloodshed was narrowly avoided. After this, two generals who did most of the work in disbanding the entity's units, met with Anic and signed with him an agreement on the return of soldiers and officers to the barracks.

The only consequence was that some soldiers and officers lost several salaries, and certain senior officers who strongly supported the disbanding were demoted. The return of all Croat Defense Council members to the barracks marked the end of the gravest crisis caused by the declaration of self-government. After this, the Croat Democratic Union went on the defensive, and Croat self-government ended with Jelavic's speech on Oct. 6, this year.

Simultaneously with their campaign in the army, Jelavic and the Croat Democratic Union initiated another one in the police and customs service, two other important segments of government. They organized the signing of petitions of loyalty to Croat self-government. The two services' officers were asked to confirm their support to Jelavic and the self-government bid in writing, and according to international officials, some did so under pressure. Because they signed the petitions, many officers lost their job. Although most of them signed the petitions, little changed in the two services, and they had remained part of the existing system of government. The only result of this campaign was again a handful of lost jobs.

By confronting the government through campaigns in the army, police and the customs service, the Croat Democratic Union also came into conflict with the Office of the High Representative (OHR). At the time it proclaimed self-government in the Croat-dominated areas, the party said it would no longer respect any decisions brought by the international high representative in Bosnia. This is the only promise which the Union has kept. The party has rejected the high representative's decision to oust senior party officials, and merely re-elected them. But the confrontation was more the result of the OHR's attitude to the party, than of the party's capabilities and plans. Namely, international representatives clearly said they would not negotiate with people whom the high representative had dismissed. Since the international community remained firm in its stance, and the Union failed to make changes at its top, relations between them were almost completely frozen.

The Union had hoped to secure the backing of the Roman Catholic Church as well. And, indeed, the Church backed both the party and the Croat National Assembly on the issue of self-government, and certain church dignitaries were the most vocal promoters of their decisions. Some of them even became ideologues of the self-government movement. For instance, Ratko Peric, bishop of the Mostar-Duvno diocese, held fiery speeches in favor of self-government and the Union moves and plans at prayers and church celebrations.

The first Croat National Assembly's session in Novi Travnik was attended by Cardinal Vinko Puljic who, later and probably under public pressure, distanced himself from the Assembly. Although not in favor of forming a third entity, Puljic still supported certain Union moves and frequently tried to act as a mediator between party officials and the government. As opposed to the cardinal, Bishop Peric had no such qualms. He urged the people to assist self-government and to sacrifice themselves for it in any possible way. Most Herzegovinian Franciscans followed his example. Today, when it is clear that Croat self-government is a thing of the past, they have again become immune to all worldly affairs and have devoted themselves to religious matters exclusively, let us hope, for good. The international community finally launched a counter offensive, its primary target being the Hercegovacka Banka, which was envisaged as the Bosnian Croats' central financial institution. During its blockade, there were violent clashes. OHR officials who were in charge of receivership at the bank were beaten up, and the Mostar OHR office had to be evacuated from the western part of the town. That April 6 it appeared that the Croat Democratic Union was prepared to do everything to defend its self-government, protecting it by force if need be. But after it lost the bank thanks to the OHR, the Union swiftly lost control of all other companies which had provided it with considerable income. The new entity government embarked on taking over all public companies. The Union and Croat National Assembly strongly opposed the forming of new managing boards in all public companies in the Croat-dominated areas, appointed by the new government, because they stood to lose a source of money they used to finance their illegal government. Since the Union said it did not recognize the new authorities and their decisions, the existing managing boards appointed by the Union refused to step down. New public company managements could not be installed. The stalemate lasted several weeks, and then the new managers, escorted by law enforcement officers, entered their offices and appointed new managements in public companies. And the Union lost again.

Although most politicians said self-government was a separatist attempt, the Croat Democratic Union kept sending conflicting messages about its nature. Some described it as a temporary means to enable Croats to exercise their rights, others did not rule out the possibility of a third entity, and others still, such as the Christian Democrats, openly spoke in favor of the latter option. The president of the autonomous Croat region, Marko Tokic, even spoke of the existence of a draft constitution, and some newspapers in neighboring Croatia carried excerpts from it. Domestic analysts claimed it was an attempt to revive the Croat republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, and some said it was a final effort to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina. And when, according to some newspapers, a referendum on transforming the autonomous region into a Croat republic was to be organized this autumn, Jelavic announced its demise. He told journalists that region "is not a territorial unit as it has been perceived by the public, but an unsuccessful attempt by Bosnian Croats to ensure equality."

The self-government era was marked by hysterical condemnations of certain respectable Croat politicians and intellectuals for alleged treason. Everybody who did not support self-rule, as well as Croats working for legal government institutions and who did not express loyalty to Jelavic, were publicly branded traitors. Their numbers were so great that, as someone put it, it seriously questioned the Union's claims that the party enjoyed majority support. Some even claimed that all those who did not participate in self-government were not Croats. Jelavic had to deny this publicly by saying that he considered Croat members of the Alliance for Change Croats, and that the only problem was that they had no Croat support to govern, not being elected by the people. The best example of this is what happened with Defense Minister Anic and Gen. Jelic. Namely, Gen. Jelic and Croat Defense Council officers loyal to him kept saying Anic was not their minister, that he had not been legally elected and had betrayed Croat interests. When, however, an agreement with Anic was reached on the return of Croat soldiers to their barracks, Jelic said that from that day he accepted Anic as defense minister.

Although Croat self-government was allegedly created for the sake of the people, no one bothered to ask the people whether they wanted it or not. When the Croat Democratic Union left state institutions, the Bosnian Croats who voted for them were deprived of their representatives in government. It should not be forgotten that at the rally where self-government was proclaimed, Jelavic told the crowd they were attending a "historical moment." Just how tired the people are of "historical moments" useful only to certain individuals for a short while and meaning nothing in terms of history, was shown by a survey of Bosnian Croats ahead of the Union's seventh assembly. The poll showed that two-thirds of Bosnian Croats were not at all interested in the gathering.

After all these events it is clear that Croat self-government was only another vehicle to manipulate the people who supported it, and yet another unsuccessfully political adventure on the part of the Union. Many people lost their jobs and income because the crisis, the economic situation has gone from bad to worse, and Bosnian Croats' image abroad has become even less appealing. It is still undetermined how the Union funded its government.

Psychologically, the self-government episode was an unnecessary setback in the process of Bosnian Croats' reintegration in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But it could serve to show Croats the true nature of those who speak on their behalf, what kind of country they live in, and in what manner they should seek their rights.

Zvonimir Jukic