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Croatia's Toehold in Bosnia Seen as Peace's Achilles Heel

By Colin WoodardSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 1996



ZAGREB, CROATIA

Every night, the television news anchors at Croatian state television deliver the news in front of a giant map of the region. Croatia is highlighted in bright green. But so is Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation, which shares a long border with Croatia. On longer-shots the two blur together, forming the 'Greater Croatia' nationalists here have been dreaming of.

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That dream may be coming closer to reality. As the peace process dictated by the 1995 Dayton accord stumbles forward, Croatia is quietly subverting the integration of the Muslim-Croat Federation, on which the success of Dayton depends.

Sources say Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who continues to nurture a de facto Croat ministate in Bosnia, now represents one of the greatest obstacles to the peace plan.

"The real threat to Dayton in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not from the Serbs," a UN source in Zagreb says. "The real problem is getting Tudjman to drag the Bosnian Croats in line. But the guy lives in a dream world, surrounded by sycophants, and has a vision in his mind of a Greater Croatia, which, at this time is a greater threat than a Greater Serbia."

Bosnian Serbs and Croats both maintain ethnically pure ministates bordering on their respective motherlands. Both groups generally oppose integration into a multiethnic Bosnia. In this sense, Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia have already come into existence with the Bosnian Muslims sandwiched in between.

"Tudjman says he supports the Dayton agreement when he talks with international people," says Karl Gorinsek, general-secretary of Croatia's opposition Social-Liberal Party.

"But in reality what was won by force of arms will not be turned over to any other power," he says.

On paper, the Dayton accords established two Bosnian "entities" - the Muslim-Croat Federation, and the Serb's Republika Srpska - joined together under a weak central government. On the ground, the Federation has so far failed to come together, due to the continued existence of Herceg-Bosna, the Bosnian Croat's unrecognized ministate.

Herceg-Bosna, which controls Sarajevo's access to the sea and overland routes to the rest of Europe, functions as an extraterritorial extension of Croatia proper.

Croatia and Herceg-Bosna share currency and banking systems, and are both ruled by the same political party - Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ.) Herceg-Bosna's flags, symbols, license plates, postage stamps, and police uniforms are virtually identical to Croatia's. And most of its citizens hold Croatian passports, or are eligible to do so.

"What we call Herceg-Bosna is already part of Croatia," says Zarko Puhovski, deputy chair of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. "Tudjman's power is so total there that he has been willing to dispose of Herceg-Bosna on paper, because it already exists in practice."

A Western diplomatic source compares the situation to that of Turkey in Cyprus. "Tudjman can rule 'his part' of Bosnia," the source says, "as long as he doesn't try to." Analysts say Tudjman is biding his time, waiting for the rickety Bosnian state to collapse - an event that could only be hastened by the fact that the Bosnian Croat and Serb members of Bosnia's three-man presidency have formed an alliance against Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic.

Croatia denies it is involved in Bosnia's internal affairs. "We're not going to meddle in the situation, and we have no interest in annexing Herzegovina," says Tudjman's spokesman, Tihomir Vinkovic, in Zagreb. He says Tudjman has little control over the situation in Herceg-Bosna.

But Tudjman can get results when he wants to. Last summer, Bosnian Croats threatened to throw the Dayton process into disarray when they refused to accept the results of EU-sponsored municipal elections in the divided city of Mostar.

After weeks of impasse, Tudjman was summoned to Washington by President Clinton. During their meeting, Mr. Clinton "read Tudjman the riot act" says a diplomatic source.

A few days later, Tudjman brought the Bosnian Croats to heel. The Mostar impasse was lifted.

"International pressure has had marginal success only when it was concerted and involved the complete commitment of all the major players," the UN source says. "A lot more US pressure will be needed to force Croatian compliance with Dayton."