Medjugorje - the well-known Catholic pilgrimage site in the Balkans - today is a place of clashing symbols and rising discontent. Crosses dot nearby hills, where shepherd children say the Virgin Mary whispers messages of peace. But in town, the nationalist flag of the illegal Croatian state of Herzeg-Bosna flies defiantly from the lampposts.
In the cafes, villagers grumble about the international administration of Bosnia. "Foreigners imposed this federation with the Muslims on us, and we can't oppose their all-powerful armies," says Vasilj Zeljko, a Croatian native of Medjugorje. "No one asked us what we think. They banned our elected representatives and put people of their own choosing in our government."
Attempts by the international administrators of Bosnia to weaken Croatian nationalists after a run at secession in March have bitterly stung this overwhelmingly Croatian area. The nationalists have responded by intensifying their calls for Croatian autonomy in western Bosnia, a prospect that a report by the International Crisis Group in Sarajevo labels the "biggest challenge to the Dayton Peace Accords since they were signed in 1995."
"The creation of a Croatian entity in Bosnia is just not in accordance with Dayton," says Henning Philipp, a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which organized the last elections in Bosnia. "We certainly don't need more divisions in this country."
International analysts have long worried that Croatian nationalism could destabilize this fragile region. The OSCE structured last November's elections to disadvantage ultra-nationalist parties like the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ), which has the support of 90 percent of the population of Medjugorje.
In March, when HDZ leaders, including the Croatian member of the Bosnian presidency at the time, Ante Jelavic, declared Croatian self-government within the Bosnian-Croat Federation, they were stripped of their public positions.
Last week, Mr. Jelavic reiterated his warning that his party will organize a referendum to establish an autonomous Croatian entity unless the new elections law, which is expected to be passed this week, reverses last autumn's anti-nationalist effort. The result is a major constitutional crisis.
The ruling multiethnic Social Democratic Party, backed by international organizations eager to disentangle themselves from Bosnia, wants to set up a centralized state with an ethnically blind electoral system. The HDZ, as well as Serb nationalist parties, wants to retain the system of parallel institutions and representation on an ethnic basis.
The Bosnian Croats, who make up just 15 percent of the country, cannot wield much influence under the new majority-rule system. "The HDZ received 80 percent of the votes from Croats in Bosnia, but we were forced out of the government by foreigners and their Serb and Muslim allies," says Dubravko Horvat, a vice president of the HDZ. "So, in effect, Croats have no political representation in Bosnia."
International officials contend that with their own police force, army units, schools, and other institutions, Bosnian Croats have too much autonomy, not too little. "The Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina have unprecedented privileges, compared to minority groups in other countries," says Michael Hryshchyshyn, a senior adviser in the international administration of Bosnia.
An alternative explanation for the HDZ's actions is that the party is defending its political and economic stronghold around the lucrative Medjugorje site. "This isn't a question of principle," says Robert Beecroft, head of the OSCE mission in Bosnia. "It is a question of greed."
Last spring, international troops took over Hercegovacka Banka, which international officials allege was funneling money to the HDZ. Observers say the loss of the bank has only made Medjugorje that much more important to Croatian nationalists, because of the millions of dollars it brings in. An obscure mountain village until June 1981, when six children said they began to see apparitions of the Virgin Mary, Medjugorje now draws about a million pilgrims annually.
"Medjugorje now has considerable economic and political significance," says Mark Wheeler, director of the International Crisis Group in Sarajevo. "The feeling that God is on your side always helps, not to mention that Medjugorje literally bankrolls the HDZ. There is very little space here between the church, the party, and the gangsters."
Ivan Sesar, pastor of Medjugorje parish, dismisses the question of the shrine's connection to the HDZ.
Close ties between religion and politics were a factor in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, which pitted Catholic Croats against Eastern Orthodox Serbs in a struggle to divide up Bosnian territory and expel the Muslim population.
For many Croats in western Herzegovina, even advantages in the election law will not make them want to be citizens of Bosnia. "Our true motherland is Croatia, and we dream of joining Croatia," Zeljko says.
But Croatia no longer wants the Herzegovina Croats. Nationalist parties lost the Croatian elections in 2000, and Prime Minister Ivica Racan increasingly supports western aims. He recently denounced the HDZ proclamations of self-rule, and last week, Croatia extradited a top general whom war crimes prosecutors in The Hague accuse of overseeing the murder of Serb civilians in 1993.
In Medjugorje, both moves are seen as betrayals. "Croats are guilty of nothing," says Vasilj Jozo, an elderly grape farmer in the village. "The generals were defending our Croatian land. They are heroes."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor