Four years after the war, ethnic polarization remains

From cafe posters lauding Croatia's late president to complaints over a muezzin's cry, Mostar's Croats are nostalgic for a city that once was.

IVAN PRSKALO, the mayor of Mostar, is in the midst of an impassioned defense. In his airy office, furnished IKEA-style, he insists that his people, the Bosnian Croats, do not deserve criticism for preventing peace from taking root in Bosnia.

The blame, he says, lies with the Bosnian-Muslim leadership in Sarajevo, which seeks "Islamization," and to oppress the Croat minority.

Suddenly, he is interrupted by the wail of the muezzin from the ancient mosque next door. It is the midday call to prayer.

"It doesn't irritate me, but I don't like the loudness," Mr. Prskalo says through an interpreter. "And it's gotten even louder since the war.... It's not the most beautiful song to hear at five each morning."

Four years after the war, ethnic polarization continues to thrive in Bosnia. And Prskalo's assertions notwithstanding, it's not the fault of only one side. Bosnian Croat, Serb, and Muslim hardliners stick with a tried-and-true formula to stay in power: Stoke interethnic fears, to convince voters of the need to rally around their own flag.

But a change is in the air in Mostar, sundered in May 1993 as Bosnia's Croats turned on the Muslims - their onetime allies against the Serbs - in a bid to carve out a chunk of Bosnia to unite with Croatia.

Along the icy sidewalk near cafes serving honey-soaked baklava, there are ubiquitous posters of deceased Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Back in Zagreb, the public displays were put up and taken down in a matter of days. But Mostar Croats refuse to let go.

"They definitely have reason to grieve," says a Western diplomat based in Mostar since 1996. "Tudjman encouraged them to believe they were a part of Croatia. But the reality is different. They live in a different country."

The West has long castigated Croatia for failing to extradite alleged war criminals to the Hague tribunal, for blocking the return of ethnic Serb refugees, and for channeling cash and arms to Bosnia's Croats.

Stipe Mesic, winner of Croatia's Feb. 7 presidential runoff, has vowed to scale back Croatia's hefty financial assistance - estimated at $300,000 to $500,000 per day - for Mostar's Croats.

Without such patronage, Western officials expect Bosnian Croats to gradually moderate their stance.

"We have reason to believe they will realize the need to work within the structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina to find solutions to their problems," says Avis Benes of the Office of the UN High Representative in Mostar.

Western observers describe Croatia's apparent shift in attitude as the most promising event in the region since the 1995 Dayton peace accord. If Zagreb tones down its rhetoric, the reasoning goes, Bosnia's Croats, Serbs, and Muslims may follow suit.

Famous for its 16th-century white stone bridge, Mostar is the urban hub of Herzegovina, the southwest region of Bosnia. "Mostarians" were regarded as a diverse but tolerant bunch before the war.

But since 1993, the green Neretva River has also split the city demographically, with Muslims living mostly on the east bank, Croats on the west.

Mostar Croats tune in to Croatia's state-controlled television, and the school curriculum here is identical to that in Croatia. "Kids here are taught more about the hills around Zagreb than the hills around Mostar," says the diplomat.

Now many Bosnian Croats feel betrayed. There is widespread anxiety about the future. Jobs are scarce and the Croat population in Bosnia has declined from 17 to 10 percent.

"Many people here fought and died defending Croatia, and then they took care of us," says Damir, who has a temporary job in a juice-bottling plant. "They can't just leave us like this. We're the minority here."

But a Bosnian Muslim name Seijla expects this cycle of ethnic politics to go on for years. "The Croats fear what will happen if the Muslims take over, so they'll continue voting for hardliners."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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