Balkan nationalism loses steam

Bosnians go to the polls on Nov. 11. In Croatia and Yugoslavia, the top hard-liners are already out.

Old Guard Balkan politicians, who used ethnic hatred to galvanize supporters and wage bloody wars in the early 1990s, are giving way to less nationalist successors. The result for Bosnia is change - even growing ethnic tolerance - that was unthinkable in wartime.

The death of Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman in December paved the way for a moderate, pro-West regime that since January has all but abandoned hard-line ethnic Croats in Bosnia.

International officials hope the same decoupling will happen with Bosnia's ethnic Serbs, who bought heavily into the virulent nationalism of Yugoslavia's former president, Slobodan Milosevic. Mr. Milosevic, who has been indicted for war crimes, was ousted from power last month.

Completing the fall of the nationalist triumvirate - the leaders who took power with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, fanning ethnic flames - Bosnia's Muslim copresident, Alija Izetbegovic, stepped down Oct. 14 for health reasons.

"People are now aware that they have been manipulated for the last eight years," says Svetlana Broz, a cardiologist and granddaughter of Josip Broz Tito, whose 35 years of Communist rule over Yugoslavia kept ethnic differences in check. A crusader against nationalism, Dr. Broz has published a book, "Good People in the Time of Evil," about how those who believed in Bosnia's multiethnic dream did intra-ethnic good deeds during some of the darkest moments. "Hatred was not the reason for this war. It was imported by nationalist parties and leaders," she says. "Those who don't have hatred in their souls don't have a need for revenge. They just want a normal life."

Such a normal life is slowly taking shape in Bosnia, as Muslims, Croats, and Serbs cross ethnic borders in unprecedented numbers. So-called "minority returns" to areas controlled by another ethnic group are double those of last year - 29,703 by August, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Earlier this year, returns were four times last year's rate.

Among them are people like Refik Halilovic, whose Muslim family is one of 40 rebuilding homes in Turovi, a village destroyed by Serbs in 1993. Mr. Halilovic uses old bricks, blackened when the house was torched, fills in grenade pockmarks with plaster, and hammers bent nails straight for reuse.

Amid the piles of rubble that deface the village, bad memories are everywhere. In this area controlled by Bosnia's Serb entity, so are the Serbs, who have been less than welcoming.

"I don't blame them, it was a war," Halilovic says, pointing his trowel toward the nearby town of Trnovo. "I blame the leaders of the Serbs, but the people have the same problems we do. I can forgive them. Can they forgive us?"

The number of returns is among the most concrete signs that the five-year-old Dayton peace accord is finally taking root. More than $5 billion has been spent to reconstruct the country - not including the cost of the 20,000-strong multinational peacekeeping force.

International pressure against hardliners - including reduced aid and the firing of obstructionist local officials - has helped. But ethnic division has been a pervasive theme ahead of Nov. 11 general elections in Bosnia.

"We have not yet created multiethnic political parties ... so people vote ethnically out of fear," says Jacques Klein, a former US diplomat and reserve Air Force general who runs the mammoth UN operation in Bosnia. "We haven't been able to break that pattern, and until we do, we will continue to give new mandates to the thugs who are already in power. That's the failure so far, but it is going to work."

Draconian as it may be to impose rules on Bosnian leaders, Mr. Klein says, Bosnians of all groups often tell him privately that there is no other way. The current campaign, for example, is playing to old fears. One poster has this message for Croats: "If you don't vote for us, you will be extinct." And Western officials blame radical Serb politicians for days of demonstrations last week in Brcko. Bosnian Serb students threw rocks and eggs to protest attending the same schools as Muslims, although at different times of day.

Still, other changes have transformed Bosnia. Until 1998, car license plates showed ethnic affiliation, making freedom of movement virtually impossible. Then the Office of the High Representative (OHR), which effectively runs Bosnia as a protectorate, issued orders for ethnicly neutral plates. Though Serb leaders protested - "We will eat grass first," declared one - Serbs were the first to snap them up. Based on that enthusiasm, the OHR will issue common passports and drivers' licenses in coming months. "It's a huge step that has opened people's minds and exposed the hypocrisy of the nationalist game," says Michael Haner, an OHR political adviser who runs the program. "But," he adds, "it's a slow, grinding process."

Just ask those who returned to urban areas to find homes stripped down to the last light socket and window frame. Some have been attacked; a few had new houses burned. One Serb mother, whose family returned to a now-Muslim suburb of Sarajevo, complains that abuse at school forced her son to go to class in a Serb area. "He would like to go somewhere where it doesn't matter who you are, where you are free from prejudice and nationalism," she says.

"Still there is fear, but before it was fear of execution," says Aida Feraget, an official in Sarajevo with the UNHCR. "Now the fear is, 'Which job will I have? Which school will my children attend?' Politicians are trying to invoke national feelings, but those emotions are now changed to those of everyday life."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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