THE BOSNIAN CROAT REBELLION
years and a week ago, Bosnia-Herzegovina was recognized as
an independent state – an event which triggered the escalation
of violence and plunged that former Yugoslav republic into
a spiral of civil war from which it has yet to recover.
the 1,326 days of the war, Serbs fought Muslims and Croats;
Muslims fought Serbs, Croats and other Muslims; while Croats
first fought Serbs, then Muslims, then Serbs again. It was
in November 1995 that the war officially ended with the Dayton
Peace Agreement, negotiated – in the absence of a more
accurate word – at the Wright-Patterson US Air Force Base
in Dayton, Ohio.
the DPA, Bosnia was to have a weak central government joining
the two "entities": the Serb Republic [Republika
Srpska] and the Muslim-Croat Federation
[Federacija], also known as the Federation of Bosnia
and Herzegovina. Just the terminology has caused much confusion
since, as the Republic and the Federation were merely parts
of the State, not states themselves – not to mention that
the State was under military occupation of NATO and "oversight"
of the UN High Representative. And now, five years and four
months after the DPA was signed, something is rotten again
in the State of Bosnia. Or more specifically, the Federation…
the country-wide elections last November, the Social-Democratic
Party of Bosnia (SDP)
won the plurality of votes in the Federation. It then formed
a coalition with several smaller parties and the Muslim-dominated
Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina (SzBiH), which gave it a majority
necessary to form a government. Under the new voting rules,
that also gave the newly formed coalition the right to appoint
candidates from its rolls to fill positions of power in the
Federation – Croat, as well as Muslim. The Croatian Democratic
Union (HDZ), the dominant Croat political party, had won most
of the Croat popular vote, only to see its representatives
disenfranchised by the SDP-SzBiH coalition. The reaction was
February 28 this year, HDZ’s representative in the three-man
Presidency declared that the Federation was dead. "From
today the federation is a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) national
entity, but without Croats," said Ante Jelavic [Yelavich],
quoted by Reuters.
"These authorities in Bosnia are illegal, illegitimate."
Three days later, the HDZ called a Bosnian Croat convention
and declared the establishment
of an "an inter-regional council as a form of Croatian
reaction was swift. Office of the High Representative (OHR)
dismissed Jelavic’s statement as the "usual extremist
nonsense." Jelavic and other Croat officials were sacked
from office by the HR, Austria’s Wolfgang
Petritsch, and banned from political life. Croat officials
loyal to the SDP-SzBiH coalition immediately ordered Croat
police and soldiers not
to follow orders issued by HDZ officials prior to their
early April, however, the Federation government acknowledged
that Croat soldiers had deserted
en masse, and that many police followed
ARSENALS AND SUPPLY BASES
April 6, the anniversary of Bosnia’s recognition and the beginning
of the civil war, OHR’s auditors zeroed in on Hercegovacka
Bank, a financial institution with close ties to the HDZ,
and tried to seize
control of its branches. For an entire day, soldiers of
NATO-dominated SFOR (Stabilization Force) fended off attacks
of angry Croats, who even took some auditors hostage
at a branch in Grude, a major center of HDZ activity. Others
were trapped in Mostar as well, but were subsequently extracted
by SFOR armored vehicles. Over twenty people were injured,
most of them SFOR soldiers.
called the action an "armed robbery." Jelavic himself
SFOR and OHR for initiating violence, and renewed his
pledge to secure Croat rights. Some international officials
blamed SFOR for the violence as well, describing the soldiers’
behavior in the bank seizure as a "disaster."
a day, SFOR had moved into barracks abandoned by Croat troops
their arms depots, attempting perhaps to prevent the crisis
from escalating into a shooting war. The crisis threatened
to deepen this past weekend, when war veterans in Croatia
to blockade SFOR’s resupply convoys. The attempt was foiled
by Croatia’s pro-NATO government, which is extremely hostile
to the HDZ.
are no signs the crisis is ready to disappear, however. In
the riots’ aftermath, the HDZ proceeded with grassroots organization
of its autonomous region, while the OHR braced
for further clashes and threatened new sanctions. Rejecting
the HDZ’s offer of negotiations, Petritsch said he would "not
hold any dialogue with extremists who use violence,"
continuing that neither he nor NATO would "tolerate mob
rule." He was backed up by US Ambassador Thomas Miller,
who said HDZ leaders "used their political power to cover
activities," and that Jelavic’s insistence on autonomy
was "all about money."
can hardly blame the US Ambassador for making such a comment.
He is certainly conditioned by the US policy to believe that
all of Bosnia’s problems can be solved through money and force,
when applied appropriately. Some of the facts support his
theory as well: Bosnia’s rulers have consistently plundered
state coffers over the past decade, siphoning off international
aid, tax money and charitable donations and using them for
personal gain. Izetbegovic’s regime alone was accused of embezzling
$1 billion by the New York Times in August 1999.
Herzegovina, where the HDZ enjoys most support, is one of
the richest regions of the country, though the poorest in
resources. It sits on top of major trade routes into the Bosnian
hinterland, and its almost entirely ethnically Croat population
has grown rich on both legal and illegal trade. HDZ’s political
influence certainly brought in its share of wealth. Even during
the war, Croat merchants rarely allowed the fighting to interfere
with business, often trading with both Muslims and Serbs right
on the frontlines.
all that, it would be very tempting to dismiss Croat protests
as discontent with losing a shady, but lucrative source of
income. And yet, as it often is the case in Bosnia, things
are a bit more complicated.
sacking of their duly elected officials certainly provoked
some justifiable ire among the Croats. The international governor’s
have made Bosnia into a virtual colony of the UN and NATO,
with OHR having the final
say in all legislative, judicial and even administrative
matters in the land. The current flag
and national anthem were imposed by an OHR decree. Ditto the
on vehicles, designed to be the same across the country, so
as not to point to ethnic identity of the vehicle’s owner.
Many laws have been simply rammed through the State Parliament,
which did not even get the chance to rubber-stamp them. OHR
censors the media, and even the content of schoolbooks, in
order to make them "inoffensive" and politically
correct. Finally, many powers of the "entities"
have been transferred to the central government, from issuing
passports to customs control. With so much power in the hands
of the foreigners, many Bosnian citizens can rightfully wonder
what role their local authorities serve – merely to suck up
money collected through obscenely high tax rates, perhaps?
printable version of this article
Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and
currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian
War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo,
and had contributed to the Independent. As a historian who
specialized in international relations and the Balkans, Malic
has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and
Serbian politics, which were published by the Serbian
Unity Congress. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears
could be that the international occupiers are aiming for
just such a response. Because of its peculiar structure,
Bosnia does have a mammoth bureaucracy, far larger than
its near-nonexistent economy is able to support. Centralization
would certainly make much sense from a purely economic point
of view – that is, if Ambassador Miller were right and it
really was just about the money.
could argue quite strongly that the fear of centralization
was one of the driving forces behind Bosnia’s civil war.
While a part of Yugoslavia, Bosnia was relatively stable.
The slight numerical superiority of the Muslims was balanced
by influences from Serbia and Croatia. Serbs and Croats
both feared Muslim dominance in case Bosnia became independent.
was especially acute given that the Muslim leader at the
time, Alija Izetbegovic, had achieved notoriety by authoring
Declaration – a booklet claiming that Muslims ought
to live in a religious state, incompatible with Western-style
civic democracy. Izetbegovic and his SDA party championed
the idea of a unified, centralized Bosnia. His government
claimed to be the only legitimate authority in the country.
They even changed their people’s name from "Muslims"
[Muslimani] to "Bosniaks" [Bosnjaci]
and elevated the dialect they spoke to a "Bosnian"
language, all to better stake their claim to all of Bosnia
as their nation-state. In line with this philosophy was
Sarajevo’s ludicrous wartime claim that the conflict was
not a civil war, but rather an invasion by Serbia.
Serbs had been fighting against such a trend since 1992.
Croats, reluctantly aiding Izetbegovic at first, decided
to protect themselves from his integrationist ideas in 1993.
That is when their self-proclaimed Herzeg-Bosnia [Herceg-Bosna]
came into conflict with the Muslim authorities in Sarajevo,
prompting Izetbegovic to accuse Croatia of "aggression"
as well. The Croat-Muslim conflict of 1993 was especially
vicious, marked by atrocities on both sides and widespread
and Muslims were eventually reconciled at gunpoint by the
United States, in 1994, when their representatives signed
the Washington Accords establishing the "Federation
of Bosnia and Herzegovina". The Federation was initially
envisioned as a step towards integration of Bosnia, and
some politicians evens peculated that the Serbs would eventually
be forced to join and surrender their claim to an independent
republic. But the Federation never functioned smoothly,
as Croats and Muslims never completely trusted each other.
The Serbs refused to be assimilated, even after NATO and
the Croatian army invaded Bosnia and intervened
against them in late 1995. Eventually, the war ended through
another shotgun marriage – in Dayton – leaving Bosnia semi-unified,
semi-divided and quite unviable.
Dayton, the occupation forces and the UN administration
focused most of their pressure on the Serbs. In the spring
of 1999, for example, Petritsch’s predecessor Carlos Westendorp
had crippled possible Serb resistance to NATO’s attack on
sacking the Serb Republic president Nikola Poplasen
[Poplashen]. Many Muslims hailed this decision, considering
Poplasen a Serb racist, while the Croats were ambivalent.
But Jelavic’s sacking last month was most definitely based
on the Poplasen precedent.
Serbs, however, had one great advantage over the Croats:
Dayton guarantees the Serb Republic’s existence, so even
the OHR is unable to abolish it. Croats, on the other hand,
have no republic of their own, and no protection from whatever
measures the OHR can impose within the Federation that would
benefit the Muslim plurality. Additionally, Croats are Bosnia’s
smallest constituent people, with barely 17% of the total
population (and that is based on the 1991 census).
Croat birth rates are abysmally low compared to the Muslims.
Even without HDZ’s political and economic motives, they
would have every reason to defend practices and institutions
protecting their rights as a constituent people, since as
a minority they would have no political influence whatsoever.
it was the Croat assistance that enabled Izetbegovic to
brush aside Serb resistance to Bosnia’s secession, when
the combined number of Muslims and Croats easily achieved
a two-thirds majority at the March 1992 independence referendum.
It was this flagrant disregard of their rights that made
the Serbs resort to violence. Now, it seems, the Croats
have fallen into the very trap they helped dig for the Serbs
nine years ago.
FACES, OLD POLITICS
another twist to an already complex situation is the fact
that, although the new Federation government defeated Izetbegovic’s
SDA, much of its program recycles the slogans of 1992. The
SDP wants a "citizen state," one blind to ethnicity,
SDA’s talk of "Serb aggression." That alone is
anathema enough to Serbs and Croats, since a "citizen
state" had been merely a veil for Izetbegovic’s plans
for Muslim domination. In order to form a government, though,
the SDP had to ally itself with the SzBiH, led by former
Izetbegovic aide and one of the most vocal integrationist
Silajdzic [Silaydzich]. SzBiH’s electoral slogan was
"Bosnia without the entities," openly flouting
the Dayton agreement. Silajdzic himself frequently called
the Serb Republic a "genocidal creation." Finally,
one of the high-ranking members in the new government is
Izetbegovic’s former warlord, Sefer Halilovic [Halilovich],
one of the founders
of the Muslim militia that fought for a unitary Bosnia.
therefore, is much more complex than Ambassador Miller,
or Wolfgang Petritsch, believe. It is a paradox in and of
itself – a supposedly multi-ethnic state founded on the
blood of a multiethnic Yugoslavia it had helped murder.
Begat in crime, it was saved from early death by a blatantly
illegal NATO intervention and wholesale, US-sanctioned ethnic
cleansing – followed by an imposed peace agreement that
resulted in more ethnic cleansing. Its foreign rulers have
deliberately turned a blind eye to ethnic concerns, which
lie at the very root of Bosnia’s inherent instability.
the true words of Abraham
Lincoln that "a house divided against itself cannot
stand," the United States and NATO continue to hold
Bosnia together by force, depriving its people of liberty
to decide their own destiny. No amount of money can replace
liberty, and no amount of force can eradicate ethnic identity,
rooted much deeper into the minds of Bosnia’s three peoples
than an artificial notion of that country’s citizenship.
A multiethnic Bosnia might yet be possible, if its people
decide to support it of their own free will. Since that
well has already been amply poisoned by Izetbegovic’s abuses,
NATO’s occupation and the persistent despotism of the OHR,
chances for such a development grow slimmer by the day.
has always been deeply misunderstood. During its days as
an Ottoman province, it was known as the "dark vilayet"
[province], as its Muslim landowners as well as Christian
peasants frequently revolted against the Sultan. In modern
times, the West tried to project an illusion of a multiethnic
paradise onto a country deeply rotten with hatred and bloodshed.
Today, after thousands of dead, hundreds of thousands exiled,
five years of occupation, several elections, and billions
of dollars spent, Bosnia is nowhere closer to coming to
terms with itself than it had been in 1991.
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