Analysis 21 Feb 13

Zagreb’s Tangled Affections for Bosnia’s Croats

European Union membership for Croatia may not resolve Zagreb’s contradictory urges to support a unified Bosnia while simultaneously backing Bosnian Croats’ grievances.

Boris Pavelic

Croatia’s wavering stance between support for Croat nationalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina and political backing for the unity of the fragile Bosnian state has continued for more than 20 years now, and it doesn’t seem that EU accession, expected in July this year, will make much difference to Zagreb’s position.

This month Zagreb managed to sort out some of its outstanding differences with Sarajevo ahead of its prospective EU accession date, including the important issue of border crossing points.

But it’s unclear how EU membership will affect Zagreb’s relationship with the Bosnian Croats, who remain locked in an uncomfortable embrace with Bosniaks in Bosnia’s fragile Federation political entity.

Bosnian Croat politicians have often complained that they aren’t getting a fair deal from the current set-up, leading to concerns that Zagreb might actively interfere with Bosnia’s troubled political processes.

The post-nationalist authorities in Zagreb have maintained two main political principles in relation to BiH - that Croatia supports Bosnia as an independent and friendly neighbouring country, but that it also has the constitutional obligation to help the Croat population there.

A lot of political vagueness and ambiguity continues to burden these two principles, however. 

Currently, there’s no fear that Croatia could physically interfere in Bosnia as it did 20 years ago, when it actively supported Croat military forces waging war with the predominantly Bosniak national army.

As Croatia got closer to joining the European club, its support for a united and independent Bosnia on its way to NATO and the EU become stronger and clearer, says Senad Avdic, editor-in-chief of Sarajevo-based weekly Slobodna Bosna.

Zagreb’s “friendly, honest and constructive relationship” with Sarajevo, which started under the presidency of Stjepan Mesic 13 years ago, has continued under his successor Ivo Josipovic, Avdic told BIRN. 

But other analysts are uncertain whether Zagreb is supporting political forces that want BiH to remain unified, or those which are trying to further weaken the already loose and strained ties which are holding Bosnia together.

It also remains to be seen whether its policies towards BiH will change in any way after Croatia joins the EU this year, and what exactly Brussels expects of Zagreb as regards relations with its Bosnian Croat kin.

According to Tomislav Jakic, who worked as foreign policy advisor to former Croatian President Mesic, “EU expectations from Croatia will depend on the level to which EU understands the problem of BiH and their possible consequences in the region”.

Jakic told BIRN however that he believes that Zagreb should act in a way “which would ensure the further normalisation of bilateral and regional relations” with Sarajevo.

An illegitimate presidency in Sarajevo?

During the war in Bosnia, Croatia was openly involved, first when Croatian Defence Council, HVO military forces fought alongside the Bosnian Army against Serb troops, and then when open war between Croats and Bosniaks erupted in 1993, during which Croat forces cooperated militarily with Serb fighters.

The Croat-Bosniak conflict lasted until spring 1994, when an agreement signed under US sponsorship in Washington ended it. 

Zagreb’s policy towards Bosnia switched after Croatian President Franjo Tudjman died in 1999 and his party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ subsequently lost elections in 2000. 

Subsequently elected President Mesic proclaimed that “the Bosnian Croats’ capital is Sarajevo, not Zagreb”.

Zagreb-based political analyst Davor Gjenero thinks that Mesic’s position still defines Croatia’s official attitude.

“Despite all the clumsiness of Croatian policies towards BiH, that part of Mesic’s heritage is not easy to annul,” Gjenero told BIRN.

Nevertheless, tensions inside Bosnia have continued to influence Zagreb’s policy, especially the constant complaints from the political representatives of the Bosnian Croats that their community has been slowly but steadily deprived of its rights as a “constitutional nation” inside BiH.

The Croatian seat in the tripartite Bosnian presidency has been a major point of conflict.

After Zeljko Komsic from the Social Democratic Party of BiH was twice elected as the Croatian member of the presidency, Croatian parties claimed that he was voted in by a majority of Bosniak rather than Croat votes, and claimed that Croats in Bosnia were being cheated of their democratic dues.

At the beginning of 2011, President Ivo Josipovic and former Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor intervened with a joint statement emphasising that it was “especially important” to “establish the definition of a constitutional nation’s representative” who gains legitimacy through the political will of “the constitutive nation he’s coming from”.

It was a clear sign that Zagreb shared the view of the nationalist HDZ’s Bosnian counterpart, which regards Komsic as a legal but not legitimate representative of Bosnia’s Croats.

Avdic doesn’t believe that Zagreb overstepped the mark in terms of acceptable bilateral relations, however. 

“The way the Croatian member of BiH presidency has been elected is the source of real and understandable frustrations among BiH Croats, so the authorities in Croatia can’t be indifferent about that,” he said.

But because HDZ BiH advocates the creation of some form of “third Croat entity” in Bosnia, Zagreb’s support for the party’s stance fuelled accusations from Sarajevo that Croatia was returning to Tudjman’s old policy of destructive interference.

Avdic disagrees, however. “I really don’t see that the Croatian government, or President Josipovic, supports HDZ BiH in any way, hidden or transparent,” he said.

Leaving the 1990s behind

Since 2000, the Croatian government has officially communicated only with the central BiH authorities in Sarajevo, signalling that Zagreb wants to leave behind its 1990s policies.

Many believe that Josipovic, who was elected Croatia’s president in January 2010, opened a new page in the relationship by making a conciliatory statement to the Bosnian parliament about Croatia’s role in the Bosnian war.

“I express my deep regret because Croatian politics contributed to the sufferings and divisions which still haunt us,” Josipovic told the Bosnian legislature during his first presidential visit to the neighbouring state in April 2010.

The day afterwards, Josipovic paid homage to both Bosniak and Croat victims of the war in 1993. Several weeks later, he also offered a tribute to Serb victims.

These gestures, Josipovic explained, were conceived as a symbolic end of post-war misunderstandings between Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, and the start of a new era of cooperation.

But some suggest that this was far too ambitious a conception, especially considering that, three years on from that visit, Bosniaks and Croats still can’t sort out how to work together to run the country’s Federation entity properly.

And despite Zagreb’s official stance, contacts between Croatian officials and Bosnian Croat political representatives nevertheless continue.

Zoran Milanovic, who became Croatia’s prime minister in January 2012, visited Bosnia in February last year, going to Sarajevo first, but then travelling on to meet Bosnian Croat political representatives in Mostar. 

“Croatia won’t get tired of appealing for agreement inside BiH. All we demand for BiH Croats is fair play,” Milanovic said in Mostar, not specifiying what he meant by ‘fair play’.

So it remains unclear what course Zagreb might advocate if serious political negotiations about BiH’s future political structure ever started.

Sarajevo-based analyst and writer Ivan Lovrenovic suggested last year that “it is obvious that a totally different, ‘third’ Croatian policy on BiH is needed”.

That policy, said Lovrenovic, “should succeed in linking particular Croatian and general Bosnian interests in a consistent and prospective way”.

“So far, nobody offered such a policy in an authentic, persuasive and politically organised way,” he concluded. 

Gjenero, on the other hand, believes that “Croatian policy towards BiH can be defined only as a sketch”.

He suggested that “there must be some higher value than the sum of the three BiH nations - a value which defines the statehood of BiH”. 

 “Advocating a third, Croatian political entity [in Bosnia] is contrary to these principles,” Gjenero said.

 Ex-president Mesic’s former adviser Jakic said that his old boss’s assertion that the Bosnian Croats “have to solve their problems inside BiH” remains the most valid position for Zagreb. 

 Any attempt by Zagreb to take control over Bosnian Croat political processes, said Jakic, “could only have negative results”.

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