Deciding moment in Balkans

Recent clashes between Croat militias and UN forces present the biggest challenge yet to Dayton.

When Croat militias were trying to cleanse Bosnia of Muslims and Serbs in the early 1990s, Marija's husband was killed fighting for the cause. Ever since, she has lived off a sizable monthly stipend from the hard-line Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) party.

And she is a true believer, relatives say, in the party line that ethnic Croats still aren't treated fairly and need their own ministate within Bosnia. "Self-determination or extermination," the HDZ protest slogans say; and Marija never failed to join those protests when called upon.

So it was a pivotal moment on April 6 - and indicative of the HDZ's sliding fortunes - when Marija decided to avoid the latest call to arms. Three times, HDZ men knocked on the door of her gray concrete house, where laundry often hangs out to dry. The men wanted her to demonstrate against a takeover by Western officials of Hercegovacka Banka - a key HDZ bank and patronage tool. But three times, Marija hid.

It's not a decision she wants publicized, because here it amounts to sacrilege and brutal recriminations. Marija is not her real name, and her relatives say it's too dangerous for her to speak to a foreigner.

"For the HDZ, the war is not over - this is just a continuation," says family friend Jure, also a pseudonym. "The only way to destroy the HDZ is to take away their money."

Which is precisely the new Western strategy. The day Marija hid, the rioting turned violent in west Mostar, a hard-line Croat stronghold. Stone-throwing young men with shaved heads attacked Western officials and police at several bank branches, looted documents, and stole cash.

The violence made clear that the HDZ's plans to secede and declare a monoethnic Croat state may be the biggest threat to the 1995 Dayton peace accord in five years. But despite the appearance of chaos, the current showdown may well strengthen the accord, if the West keeps up the pressure and bedrock supporters like Marija look for alternatives.

Besides ending 3-1/2 years of ethnic fighting that left 200,000 dead, the Dayton accord created a Muslim-Croat Federation that controls 51 percent of Bosnia, and a Serb ministate - Republika Srpska - which controls 49 percent.

"This is the point of catharsis, where [the West] must decide to stay the course or back down," says James Lyons, a Balkans-based director of the International Crisis Group. "If it backs down [and Croats withdraw from the Federation] - this is the scary part - then Dayton literally falls apart."

The forces of ethnic nationalism that tore the Balkans apart in the 1990s are retreating in former ethnic bastions like Croatia and Serbia, and elsewhere in Bosnia. Few forget, though, that Herzegovina was the birthplace of Croatian ultranationalists and the fascist Croat Ustashe that was allied with Nazi Germany during World War II.

The HDZ, Bosnia's largest Croat party, fared poorly in recent elections, despite an entrenched patronage system designed to keep voters like Marija on their side. Those results have for the first time brought a moderate alliance government in Sarajevo, with no hard-line Croat, Serb, or Muslim party members. A new Croatian government in Zagreb has also shut off the once-large flow of funds to its Bosnian brethren.

Western officials are also tightening the noose around the HDZ leadership - and "criminal activities" that US Ambassador Thomas Miller has called "extensive." One month ago, HDZ chief Ante Jelavic was removed from his post as the Croat member of the three-way Bosnian presidency.

The bank takeover that sparked the riots is part of the squeeze, along with new border guards to curb smuggling.

"This [violence] is happening because we are winning, not because we are losing," says Jacques Klein, the United Nations special representative in Sarajevo. "It's the last attempt [to hold power] by a cadre within the HDZ, who are using the patriotism of the Croat people to protect their own economic interests."

The key is to convince ordinary Croats - people from teachers to petty officials, who have relied on the HDZ for their daily bread for years - to reject the HDZ's "paramilitary criminal construct," says Mr. Klein. A similar, largely successful effort with the Serbs took place in recent years. "What's at stake here is Dayton, and no one is going to give on this, period."

And US Secretary of State Colin Powell drove that point home over the weekend, when he traveled to the Balkans. Highlighting the Bush administration's interest in peace here, Mr. Powell warned that the "recent reappearance ... of extremist elements" threatened a "return to the law of the jungle." He pledged that the US will "work with our international partners to counter the forces of conflict, separation, and hatred."

For many Croats, elements of that law of the jungle never disappeared. Despite his dismissal as HDZ chief, Mr. Jelavic last week called for ethnic Croats to leave the federation military force. Promising payment of from $250 to $25,000 each, he sparked a widespread walkout of thousands.

Some troops seeking to return have been blocked by gangs armed with stones and clubs. NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) troops on Saturday began collecting Croat tanks and heavy artillery to prevent them from being misused. In two regions, 83 and 71 percent of the soldiers nevertheless have signed new contracts. But in two other Croat strongholds in Herzegovina, none have returned.

Another example is a senior Croat military commander in Orasje, who told members of the 18,000-strong SFOR that he would remain neutral and not walk out. He disappeared for several days, then emerged on television last week looking roughed up and sweating. He avoided eye contact with the camera as he professed allegiance to the HDZ.

In another incident, two prominent Croat officials and businessmen - who until recently were HDZ supporters, and employ hundreds of Croats in their meat business - issued a statement last Tuesday rejecting HDZ methods. Early the next morning, a bomb blast ripped through one of their cars.

"The HDZ is taking desperate measures because they feel they are losing power," says Kresimir Zubak, the minister for human rights and refugees, and head of an alliance of moderate Croats.

Croats form a 12 percent minority, and have 30 percent of the political power in the country. Still, they look longingly at the Serb "republic," and having one of their own is an article of faith. "Every Sunday the Croats are told: 'God wants a third entity,' " says a diplomatic source.

Such issues make "Croats easy to manipulate" by nationalists. "If you want peace in Bosnia, you must put all nations on an equal footing," says Mr. Zubak. "This situation is far from that."

Others argue that money is the root of the problem - and therefore may be easier to solve. "This is not about nationalism - it's about crimes and corruption," says another diplomatic source. "These are real thugs ... like a mafia. They want bloodshed, so they can say the West is against the Croats."

The incident at the bank brought the tug of war to a head. Officials in the High Representative's office say they found that $8 million had disappeared from certain accounts, and that 50 accounts were registered in the name of the long-disbanded wartime Croat militia alone.

Some 150 boxes of material were seized but the rioting - and the fact that SFOR troops were unprepared for the public reaction - meant that a newly appointed Western administrator has yet to take up her post.

"Croat self-rule can never become self-sustainable," says OHR spokeswoman Alex Stiglmayer. "The problem is that the nationalists are stronger at the moment, and they suppress the moderates. That will not last."

While some police rescued Western officials, the UN has suspended 21 Croat police officers for helping attack the banks. The same day, Croat intelligence services were disbanded. The difficulties aren't new: American "train and equip" military aid - received extensively by Bosnian Muslim forces - was apparently shut off to Croat units a year ago.

Western disapproval is taking its toll, if Marija's hiding game is any sign. "She was always the first to run to any demonstration, because she was sure they would win," says Marija's cousin Mato, also a pseudonym. "Now she's not sure the HDZ is the winning side, and knows the West is against them."

Moderates like Mato say "a lot of people think like we do - they are just scared and don't have the courage to say it.... This country was very rich, but everything we had ended up in their pockets," he adds. "All those HDZ people drive $100,000 cars, though there are plenty of people who have nothing to eat."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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