Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Report 39 / Europe & Central Asia

Changing Course?

The reintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) has been consistently obstructed by the main Bosnian Croat party, the Croat Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZBiH).

Executive Summary

The reintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) has been consistently obstructed by the main Bosnian Croat party, the Croat Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZBiH).  The HDZBiH is dominated by hard-liners who emphasise the consolidation of a pure Croat-inhabited territory centred on western Herzegovina, with the eventual aim of seceding and joining Croatia.  This policy has received support from hard-line elements in Croatia, including the president, Franjo Tudjman.

Long-standing divisions between those who emphasise western Herzegovina and those who wish to secure the future of Croats throughout Bosnia have led to a split in the HDZBiH and the formation of the New Croat Initiative (Nova Hrvatska inicijativa or NHI), led by the Croat member of the joint Bosnian presidency, Kresimir Zubak.  The rift in the HDZBiH widened after the death, at the beginning of May 1998, of the Croatian defence minister, Gojko Susak, which left the HDZBiH without a figure with the authority to hold together its different strands.  At the HDZBiH congress in May 1998, the party's hard-liners, against Tudjman's wishes, secured the election of the Bosnian Federation's defence minister, Ante Jelavic, as party president, defeating the comparatively moderate candidate favoured by Zubak, Bozo Ljubic.

Despite Zubak's record as a leading member of the HDZBiH, his support for the reintegration of Bosnia and the return of refugees and displaced persons appears genuine.  Zubak has consistently argued for the defence of Croat interests throughout Bosnia, even tendering his resignation as Federation president in November 1995 when the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) assigned most of northern Posavina, a region which before the war had a large Croat population, to Republika Srpska.  By contrast, Jelavic, despite his recent expressions of commitment to Bosnia and the DPA, is supported by those in the HDZBiH who have sought to make Croat-controlled western Herzegovina ethnically pure and shown scant interest in helping anybody return home, whether Croats or non-Croats.

The HDZBiH has intimidated officials and others considering switching from the HDZBiH to the NHI by threatening removal from posts, loss of pensions or benefits and other financial repercussions.  In response, the OSCE has struck HDZ candidates from party lists in three cantons and has recommended that the Mayor of Orasje be removed.  Despite these measures, the intimidatory tactics are having an impact, especially in western Herzegovina, where the HDZBiH controls patronage and a climate of fear pervades.

Nevertheless, the NHI is likely to do well in the September elections in certain regions, such as central Bosnia and Posavina.  Elsewhere, much will depend on whether and how Croat refugees, especially those in Croatia and Germany, will vote, as well as displaced Croats from central Bosnia now in western Herzegovina.  Zubak presents a strong challenge to Jelavic in the race for the Croat member of the joint presidency, if the HDZBiH’s intimidation can be countered.  He is the incumbent and also likely to receive some support from Serbs in the Federation, as well as from some Bosniacs who conclude that a vote for the Bosniac member would be wasted, as Alija Izetbegovic is sure to win.

The campaign has witnessed a bitter propaganda war, as the rivals have sought to tarnish each other with alleged revelations from their pasts.  Critical to Zubak’s prospects is fair access to the media.  The European Union  has presented a demarche to the Croatian television station, HRT, regarding its status in Bosnia and its pre-election coverage.

The formation of the NHI represents an important change in Bosnian Croat politics which improves the chances for reintegrating Bosnia.  While its success in the current climate and with the present electoral system may be limited, it is important that it should establish itself as the strongest possible alternative to the HDZBiH.  It will then be able to take advantage in the long-anticipated event of deeper changes in the Croat political scene both in Bosnia and in Croatia.  This becomes increasingly likely as the aged Tudjman ails, and as the day of reckoning between rival wings of the HDZ approaches.

With these points in mind, ICG recommends the following:

  • The NHI and Zubak personally need to campaign as actively as possible, among Croats in Bosnia and refugees abroad, in order to get their message across to Croat voters.  To promote a level playing field, the international community should do what it can to counter the intimidatory tactics of the HDZBiH, monitoring closely, striking candidates from party lists, removing public officials involved and decertifying offending police.
     
  • The pre-election reporting of HRT should be scrutinised, and careful consideration given to closing the station down in Bosnia if its coverage fails to improve.
     
  • In order to break the hold of political hard-liners in the HDZBiH, the network of corruption, crime and cronyism which is at the heart of Bosnian Croat political life needs to be attacked.  However, the lack of independence of the police and judiciary in western Herzegovina, and the climate of fear there, makes action from that source unlikely.  The international community must therefore take the initiative and intervene to bring criminals to justice and, at the same time, pressure Croatia to move against criminal elements among the Bosnian Croats.  Given the poisonous effect of the presence of such criminal gangs in Bosnia on Croatia itself, it is hard to see how Croatia can continue for long to allow the situation in Herzegovina to continue.

Skopje/Sarajevo, 13 August 1998

Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec about the precarious situation in the Western Balkans, as Serb separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the frozen Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to stoke regional instability.

The Western Balkans, a region defined in part by not being in the European Union, also contains several countries that were devastated by war in the 1990s. Now it faces new troubles, driven in part by the legacies of the old. Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted with calls for secession in the autonomous Serb-dominated region, Republika Srpska, as well as the ongoing electoral grievances of its Croat minority. Meanwhile, efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence have come to a standstill, leaving minority communities on both sides of the border vulnerable.

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for the Balkans, about why ethnic tensions persist in the region and whether there is any risk of a return to conflict. They discuss the prospects for European integration, asking whether the promise of EU membership remains an effective incentive for resolving these longstanding disputes. They also consider what impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had for stability in the Western Balkans, a region where painful memories of war are still very salient today.



Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, make sure to check out our Balkans regional page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report on the risk of instability in the Western Balkans.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.