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Croat Crisis Pushes Bosnia Towards Endgame – Analysis

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The inability of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political system to represent Croat interests will bring the stricken country to its knees – and provide useful cover for the Bosnian Serb leader’s plans.

By Matthew Parish

In November 2009 I predicted the independence of Republika Srpska. Since then, events have passed more quickly and have taken a more surprising turn than I had imagined. The catalyst for Bosnia’s final collapse was the victory of the Social Democrats, SDP, in the October 2010 general elections.

Over the course of 2011, an increasingly sorry narrative of irreversible political ruptures will permanently disfigure Bosnia’s political composition. It will be a dangerous year, in which political instability will compound the economic misery to which Bosnians are inured.

Bosnian Croat politics, previously muted, are now bringing the country to its knees. As in prior elections Bosnian Croats voted overwhelmingly in October 2010 for two nationalist parties, the Croatian Democratic union, HDZ, and its splinter sister party, HDZ-1990.

Nevertheless Bosnia’s political system has been incapable of representing Croat political preferences. The Croat member of the tripartite Bosnian Presidency, Zeljko Komsic, is a member of SDP, a party which purports to be multiethnic but in reality is overwhelmingly Bosniak.

Hardly any Croats voted for Komsic but he was elected nonetheless, due to Bosnia’s unusual electoral rules. While there is an ethnic quota for many elected officials, including the Presidency, the same quota does not apply to voters and any Bosnian citizen can vote for any candidate for the Presidency. Irrespective of who votes for them, one candidate from each ethnic group, who receives the largest number of votes, is elected.

Thus Komsic was elected to the Presidency on the votes of Bosniaks, who are perhaps four to five times as numerous as Croats, although the vast majority of Croats voted for other candidates. Bosniaks have obtained two members of the three-man Presidency, and the ethnic compact on which the Dayton Peace Accords were built was thereby undercut.

Now matters are getting worse. The SDP has managed to form a government in the Federation with marginal minority Croat parties, meaning that the two allied HDZ parties, which represent the vast majority of Croat political opinion, are frozen out of the entity’s government.

The new government will therefore reflect Bosniak interests at the expense of those of Croats. Croat politicians and the Croat public have concluded that the Federation cannot accommodate their political aspirations. Bosnian Croats also vote in Croatian elections, and the only incentive previously keeping Zagreb quiet in the face of Bosnian Croat demands for secession, or further devolution, was the lure of EU membership.

As that prospect looks more distant, the moderating influence of the EU accession process has evaporated and Bosnian Croats are unleashed to pursue their political ambitions.

HDZ and HDZ-1990 have a common immediate goal: creation of a third Entity, dominated by Croats. SDP coalitions with minority Croat parties at HDZ’s expense would thereby become a thing of the past. Revenge for the pretence that Komsic represents Croat interests would be sweet. After they get their entity, or if they cannot get it, the ultimate goal is the secession of “Herzeg-Bosna” and union with Croatia.

In this irredentist agenda the Bosnian Croats have found an unlikely ally in the shape of the the President of the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska. Milorad Dodik supports Croat aspirations for their own entity, because any programme that divides the Federation empowers him.

This explains Dodik’s recent rapprochement with Croatia’s President, Ivo Josipovic. Behind the expressions of mutual regret for wartime hostilities and public commitments to resolving environmental problems, their private agenda is more elementary. Dodik will support Bosnian Croat aspirations for detachment from Bosnia in exchange for Croatia’s acquiescence in the separation of Republika Srpska.

Thus Dodik stokes the collapse of the Federation, and relishes watching from the sidelines as Bosniaks and Croats lock in combat. This alleviates international pressure against his own secessionist project and provides him with breathing space to take a number of symbolic actions that strengthen Republika Srpska’s already advanced state of autonomy. In recent weeks, Dodik has signalled his intention to destroy the Indirect Taxation Authority, undermine the State Court and assume entity control over extradition policy – arguably a breach of the Bosnian constitution.

He has also declared that Bosnia’s High Representative, Valentin Inzko, has no authority over the Serb half of the country. Whereas Dodik’s attacks upon Bosnia’s foreign governors and the state would previously have been met with outrage, his current actions are barely a distraction from the Bosniak-Croat confrontation that threatens to fissure the Federation’s politics. There is no pressure upon him to agree to the formation of a state government for as long as the Bosniaks and Croats are at loggerheads.

The principal cause of the contemporary crisis has been an irreversible loss of interest in Bosnia by the international community. After the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords were signed the West embarked on an aggressive programme of state-building, creating institutions of central government for which there was no consensus amongst Bosnia’s three national groups.

Now Western attention has frayed, and those institutions have become a battleground amidst the ruins of which Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs fight for irreconcilable political aims.

The Dayton constitutional structure was never sustainable as a permanent political settlement because it was forced upon the antagonists using diplomatic and military threats. It was only a matter of time before this external pressure evaporated and the system blew apart.

The limit of the international community’s attention was approximately 10 years from the end of the war. Since then, the artificially constructed Bosnian state has become increasingly dysfunctional, and there is no reason why that trend should be reversed.

The sole hope for Bosnia’s continued territorial integrity was a strand of Bosniak political thinking embodied in Bakir Izetbegovic, the current Bosniak member of the country’s Presidency. Izetbegovic’s philosophy differs dramatically to that of his father, Alija, the wartime Bosniak President who advocated a unified state in which Islam would be the prevalent political influence.

Bakir’s view is that Bosniaks have tried to seek reconciliation with Serbs and Croats since the end of the war, embodied in a power-sharing central government, but the attempt has failed.

Bosniaks therefore would do better to focus on wealth creation and consolidating their political authority in areas of outright Bosniak control. Business interests should trump intractable political battles. The Serbs and Croats should be left to go their own ways.

Their parts of the country will inevitably remain poorhouses because the Bosniaks possess the affluent and cosmopolitan capital, Sarajevo, and the country’s principal industrial centres of Tuzla and Zenica. Serbs and Croats present no economic threat to an autonomous Bosniak territory, which will do better unconstrained by the obligation to seek impossible political compromises.

But this vision, which was the source of reconciliation last year between Izetbegovic’s Party of Democratic Action, SDA, and Dodik’s Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, has been eclipsed by the new Bosniak politics of SDP and its leader, Zlatko Lagumdzija.

Under the pretext of pushing for a unified multi-ethnic Bosnia, SDP has created political confrontations that it cannot win without the strong support of the international community. Croats and Serbs will unilaterally withdraw from state and Federation institutions dominated by SDP and its faux pretence of multi-ethnicity.

Although SDP has managed to create an artificial coalition in the Federation with fringe Croatian parties, the arithmetic of the state parliament will not allow it to do the same thing there without the support of some or all of SNSD, HDZ and HDZ-1990. Bosnian Serb politics are sufficiently united to ensure that it would be political suicide for any minority Serb party to form a pact with SDP.

In the meantime, Inzko is intent on withdrawing this August. The plan apparently conceived in the hallways of Brussels is to have him semi-retire to Vienna. There he will formally remain High Representative, with the so-called “Bonn powers” that allow him to impose and dismiss officials, but without continuing to swim daily with the sharks in the politically toxic waters of Sarajevo. This non-resident High Representative will be taken even less seriously than he is now.

The EU successor mission, in theory devoted to Bosnia’s non-existent process of EU accession, will watch helplessly as Dodik’s withdrawal from the state becomes ever more irreversible and as Croats and Bosniaks hurl insults at one-another over the de facto collapse of Federation institutions.

Neither Croats nor Serbs will issue declarations of independence this year; they will not need to. An aggressive agenda of publicly repudiating the Dayton political structures will keep them popular with their electorates, deflecting attention from Bosnia’s deepening economic malaise. The country may remain in a theoretical legal union for some years to come, but the last vestiges of multi-ethnic political cooperation ceased some months ago and will not be revived.

Should the centrist government in Belgrade fall over the next 12 months, Dodik may become emboldened in his centrifugal strides away from Sarajevo, knowing that a less compromising government in Belgrade, led by the nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, will not be inclined to oppose him.

Perhaps the most important outstanding question is whether Bosniaks will take up arms to prevent the disintegration of their country. Widespread violence seems unlikely. The three different peoples of Bosnia have become used to living apart in the 15 years since the war ended.

They have no incentives to murder their neighbours, as they once did, because they are no longer mixed together; the war divided the country into mono-ethnic Bantustans and despite all the international community’s efforts, that has not been significantly reversed. For most Bosniaks, Republika Srpska is to them much as is Kosovo to the Serbs: a land that invokes raw emotional responses of resentment, imagined as occupied by a hostile alien people.

But, ultimately, it is a place they never visit, and the increasing political autonomy of Serb and Croat parts of Bosnia makes no practical difference to them.

Just as the Serbs view Kosovo, Bosniaks will remain perennially bitter and hostile to those associated with what they have lost; but as with the Serbs over Kosovo, they will not fight. Whatever political developments unfold in the coming months and years, the country is already divided and the status quo is not threatened.

This cautious optimism has two caveats, Mostar and Brcko. The divided towns were thorns in the peace negotiations at Washington in 1994 and at Dayton in 1995 and remain problematic to this day. Mostar, the Bosnian Croats’ capital, permits no easy division: the tourist attractions and infrastructure links are in Bosniak east Mostar, while the commerce and industry is in the Croat west.

An uneasy truce is observed along an unreconstructed front line. The international community has overlooked the real possibility of a conflagration in Mostar erupting at any time. Brcko also remains problematic because under US tutelage Bosniak refugees returned to the town in significant numbers; yet that town centre must now form the land bridge between the two parts of Republika Srpska, if Dodik is to achieve his goal.

While Brcko has fewer guns than Mostar, there is a real risk of ethnic confrontation there if the transition to Republika Srpska domination of the town is not managed smoothly.

As the Peace Implementation Council prepares finally to bring the shutters down on OHR Brcko, just six months into the new Brcko Supervisor’s mandate, this is a ball that the US government, Brcko’s traditional guardians, seems destined to fumble.

The future of Bosnia without heavy international oversight is inevitable disintegration. The international community should now be focused upon managing the side-effects of this ugly process rather than striving to keep alive a discredited vision.

Matthew Parish was formerly Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brčko, a city in northern Bosnia subject to post-war supervision by the US government by reason of its strategic importance in the country’s conflict. He is a frequent writer and commentator on Balkan affairs. www.matthewparish.com

Mr. Parish’s book on international intervention in post-war Bosnia, A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia (International Library of War Studies), is published by I.B.Tauris.

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TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

12 thoughts on “Croat Crisis Pushes Bosnia Towards Endgame – Analysis

  • Avatar
    March 23, 2011 at 10:30 pm
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    Well written piece about someone who understands what is really happening on the ground over there.

    There will be no easy division of BiH. And there will be division sooner or later. Nothing since Dayton has signified that the country is moving closer together.

    The first mistake of Dayton was giving 49% of the territory to the Serb entity who made up approximately a third of the population. Second mistake was making the most numerious group (Bosniaks (Muslims)), share an entity with another group (the Croats). Why a mistake? Because two thirds of the population does not go into 51% of the land.

    What should have been done at Dayton was to create a third entity so that there was a Croat, Bosniak and Serb entity each. Some may argue that the situation at the time did not allow for this. I believe it did. After the joint Croat-Bosniak opperation to relieve Bihac (overall part of Operation Storm), the Federation controlled 55% of the territory in BiH. The Serbs went to Dayton for fear of losing more territory. But what the West did was giving the Serbs back 4% of the territory the Croats and Bosniaks had gained. This 4% was at the expense of the Croats. What should have happened was the Serbs should have been forced to give the Bosniaks at least 9%. Croats 20%, Serbs and Bosniaks 40% each.

    In reality this would have been extremely hard to achieve but would have allowed for a much easier future for BiH. If Operation Storm was allowed to advance to Banja Luka instead of being stopped at Bihac then it would have been possible to work out the 40/40/20 compromise.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    March 24, 2011 at 12:08 am
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    Excellent article Matthew.

    Finally someone writes about Bosnia as it really is.

    It looks to me that the Vance Owen plan may have to come back. I say this because if the Federation were to fall apart legally (although practically it’s well on its way) what will happen of the Bihac Canton? There is no land bridge to other Bosniak parts. I suppose there will have to be some land swaps and bargaining between all three peoples.

    Matt your thougths on the Bihac Canton and how it will be connected to other Bosniak parts?

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  • Avatar
    March 24, 2011 at 1:39 am
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    Dream on Mr. Parish,

    Serb spokesman strikes again with a laundry list of genocidal dreams.

    This whole article reads as a Serbian wet dream scenario.

    1) Croats steer up trouble and single-handedly secede from Bosnia.
    2) Bosniaks do nothing
    3) Serbs then walk out themselves
    4) Bosniaks do nothing
    5) Out of the goodness of their hearts Bosniaks give serbs Brcko, the only link between the two parts of serbian entity founded on genocide, as what exactly, a parting gift?

    Here are some facts for you that may not sit well with your theory.

    1) Bosniaks form a demographic majority in Brcko again. The so called “corridor” does not exist any more. If serbs want to punch though it they will have to start a war. Fight is exactly what they want to avoid. So right there you have two unconnected territories. Independence dreams dwindle.

    2) “Novo Gorazde” county, another bottleneck of serbian entity has seens a significant Bosniak return and with Gorazde stronghold directly bordering it the serbs are left with a thin link between their eastern territory. The area is nearly deserted with no significant population centers. In case of unrests this territory would be overwhelmed by Bosnian forces in matter of hours. So now our fledgling serb republic is made up of 3 unconnected parts.

    3) Then we come to the issue of Srebrenica, the victim of first genocide on European soil since WW2. Also a place of significant Bosniak return. Just the same as with the surrounding counties of Bratunac and Zvornik. From Tuzla to Srebrenica though these returnee settlements … you dont have to be a military genius to find out what happens with that kind of demographic and motivational situation.
    So now we have the independent serb republic made out of 4 parts.

    4) Then we have Bosniak dominated territories in the serb entity of Kozarac, Janja, Konjevic Polje etc etc which would simply join the bordering federation cantons.

    The only way serbs leave bosnia is on tractors like their croatian serb brethren some years back.
    There is no “peaceful” dissolution of Bosnia Matthew and his Serb employers dream of. This fight they cannot win, and they can’t wait it out either.
    In 91 Bosniaks made up 44% of the population. In 2011 they make up 55% and are the only of the 3 nations in the area that have positive population growth though both birth rates and migration. In 15 years they will form 2/3 of the population and that will be the end of entities and artificial division.

    Mathew, you have quite a bit more time to collect more paychecks from your Serb tutors. Make the best use of it ;)

    Reply
  • Avatar
    March 24, 2011 at 2:26 am
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    How can someone call the serbs of bosnia as a alien people and say that Bosnian Muslims veiw Republika Srpska as a Kosovo is viewd by Serbia proper. The great misconception about the BOSNIAKS “which NATIONALITY NEVER existed in any history books until a couple of years before the 1990 war” is that people think that they are a different nationality all together !! This is completely wrong. Before the OTTOMAN invasion of europe in 1300s the territory of BOSNIA as it is today HAD NO MUSLIMS, it was a territory inhabited PREDOMINANTLY with serbs and croats. Without going into History (which by the way has been altered by the west to suit their own interest) the bosnian Federation to the serbs of bosnia is like KOSOVO for the SERBS of SERBIA proper. Remember the saying… REPEAT A LIE A THOUSAND TIMES AND IT BECOMES THE TRUTH…But fortunately there are still some out here that dont have the wester blanket of blindness pulled over our eyes.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    March 24, 2011 at 11:10 am
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    Good analysis, except the last “optimistic” part that the new war is not likely. Quite the contrary, the possibility of the new war is very high, and the new war could be ignited very easily, much easier than in 1992. War in 1992. was result of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the main purpose of the new war will be to settle down many unresolved disputes from 1992-1995.
    And it will be bloody again with remaining minorities suffering the most.

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  • Avatar
    March 24, 2011 at 1:16 pm
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    Good article in general. Am a bit surprised though that HDZ is described as if it is the guardian of croat rights, whilst in reality it is a majorly corrupt party that suits the (business) interest of just a croat elite.

    More desturbing is this sentence:

    `But, ultimately, it is a place they never visit, and the increasing political autonomy of Serb and Croat parts of Bosnia makes no practical difference to them.`

    Apparently Matthew is capable of identifying people´s background on the streets. In reality there is a lot of traffic of people and goods between entities. The bosnian car number plate system has facilitated this, people are not recognizable by origin when trafficking.
    Moreover the time that stones were thrown, in Banja Luka, to Croatia Bus service from Zagreb to Sarajevo is long gone.
    So Matthew get your ass out of that SUV next time you visit BiH and mingle with normal people, travel with them, eat with them instead of being fed just by the ideas of people who eat from the system.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    March 25, 2011 at 3:42 pm
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    What is a Bosniak? Someone who speaks Serbo-Croatian but has a Muslum background. Right? Guess what? This land was always historically Serbian and Croatian. The Muslim population who live there now are those who had been forcefully converted during the Ottoman rule that arrived in the 1400s. I don’t recall anyone anywhere being able to split land based on religion. You don’t create a Serb, Croat and Muslim area. That’s about as crazy as the U.S. splitting it’s country into American, Hispanic and Morman!?!?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      March 27, 2011 at 12:04 am
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      I am one of these Bosniaks you mentioned in your post. This time I will not comment on “your history” (BTW -Bosnia was never Serbian). You are right – one land can not be split based on religion. It is always about the forces for vs. against disintegration. I live in Bosnia and can assure you that the forces against split in Bosnia are strong enough to protect our country. And every day stronger…

      Reply
  • Avatar
    March 29, 2011 at 4:56 pm
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    Quite decent article.

    I am Croat from Herzegovina and I am outraged that international community and SDP does not want to respect the will of Croatian people.

    90% of Croatians voted for HDZ. End of discussion there.

    What is happening now is that EU and Bosnian parties are circumventing Bosnian constitution, Dayton peace agreement because it suits them.

    It is certainly not legal.

    Now we have discussion coming from SDP that “nobody knows how many croats voted for SDP”. Financial Times writes how “40% Croatians” voted for non-nationalist party (SDP?). Are they joking?

    If another country tried to do this, UN would probably try to impose sanctions against them.

    And guess what? This is turning Croats even more against Bosnia and is helping to fuel nationalistic agenda.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    March 29, 2011 at 11:38 pm
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    Bosnia and Herzegovina is damaged and poisoned beyond repair.
    The question is if those 3 nationalities will separate in peace or in war. Nothing is excluded.

    But, Bosnia as a functioning state is mission impossible.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    March 31, 2011 at 11:01 pm
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    The only thing holding Bosnia and Herzegovina together is the international community. It has been that way since the war ended. The country is as artificial as one can get. The reality has now caught up to the soccer federation which is now officially banned from international competition. I doubt the Serbs or Croats will concede their votes for the happiness of the Muslims… Mostly Muslims play for the national team as the the Serbs and Croats represent Serbia and Croatia…This ban is the only way the Serbs and Croats can send the international community a message…

    Reply
  • Avatar
    May 11, 2011 at 6:06 am
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    Croats are opressed and harassed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.They are a constitutive people with no rights because they constantly get outvored by Muslims.Muslims are choosing Croat representatives and politicians that will “represent” them,while in reality they are representing Muslims.Zeljko Komsic is a fraud of the 21. century.

    Reply

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