bosnia report
New Series No. 15/16 March - June 2000
Sarajevo welcomes Stipe Mesic
by Ahmed Salihbegovic

We shall probably never know what was passing through the minds of the editors of Croatian TV's main evening news as they accompanied shots of Franjo Tudjman's visit to Sarajevo with bogus rapturous shouts of `Franjo, Franjo!' instead of the whistles of disapproval that could be heard on other TV stations' reports. This is probably unimportant now that Tudjman is in the past and HRTV has come under new management, headed by Mirko Galic, an eminent journalist and editor, who also happens to be a nice guy - even though he did allow himself, in his reports from Paris for the Zagreb dailies Vecernji list and Vjesnik, to place the term Bosniak between inverted commas.

It is good, however, to recall that time, in order to realise just how much progress - or return to normality - has been made in a relatively short time, and also to understand why Bosnia-Herzegovina continues, if only in a small way, to demonstrate caution and hesitation.

A purist might argue that Stipe Mesic is the closest we have to continuity with Tudjman, since he spent four years together with him at the top of the Croatian government. One need not be terribly well informed, however, to see that Mesic in fact represents the greatest possible shift away from Tudjman, especially in regard to Bosnia-Herzegovina - on a par with figures like Mesic's coalition partner Vlado Gotovac, or the friend Martin Spegelj who has shared his membership in several parties but always with a single idea. Spegelj also led the Friendship Association of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina at a time when this seemed just as utopian and discordant with reality as an American-Iranian friendship association in New Jersey (at least until recent improvements). Progress would be much more difficult, if not outright impossible, without such pioneering `unrealistic dreamers'.

One Man

While between the great Iran and the even greater United States there exist objective and subjective differences and grievances whose overcoming, apart from good will, demands considerable effort to revive trust and relax tension - and while it is not easy, in the given conditions, to resolve the conflict between the two Chinas - the difficult problems that exist between Sarajevo and Zagreb, between East and West Mostar, between Gornji Vakuf and `Uskoplje' 1, are largely the result of the crazy ideas of one man and his group, which linked its `business' interest (read: general plunder) to the insatiable desire of local strongmen to create, by fanning dormant chauvinism, their own feudal domains as a signal to the outside world that they were no longer ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ insignificant.

As it happened, the physical disappearance of that man who sat at the top of the pyramid of evil coincided with his party's fall from power. For the voters it was not their attitude to Bosnia-Herzegovina that was decisive, but their own impoverishment and sense of betrayal. The two, however, cannot easily be separated, since those who managed the process of `transformation' (i.e. privatization) were the same people who at one time `exported' worthless Yugo-dinars to Bosnia-Herzegovina in exchange for Deutschmarks. Those who stole cars in Croatia stole them also in Herzegovina. Tudjman's dream of `a hundred families which would secure the economic well being of the Homeland' inevitably led to the imposition of a paramilitary junta on the Herzeg-Bosna Croats and their `unwanted' neighbours.

A significant advance in Croatian public opinion's attitude to `the Bosnian question', or at least in its estimate of its importance, was visible in the second round of the presidential election campaign [in Croatia], when Drazen Budisa tried very hard to prove that in relation to the organization of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the rights of Bosniaks in Croatia he had been more consistent and better intentioned than Stipe Mesic. The voters did not cast their votes in response to how candidates had behaved in relation to Sarajevo or Grude this time either, but rather in response to their perception of the candidates' role in Croatia's past and present. Nevertheless, according to the economist Vladimir Gligorov in a recent issue of Nacional [Zagreb], the clarity of Mesic's position on Bosnia-Herzegovina was one reason why he eventually won the sympathy of most foreign observers.

Of the candidates defeated in the first round, only two had comforting results. One of them, Mate Granic, has recently asked the Croatian Sabor's committee on foreign affairs to clarify Mesic's statement, given on his recent visit to Slovenia, that `oneshould take into account Croatia's desire to have a border with Italy and also Slovenia's desire to have direct access to international waters': the former head of Croatian diplomacy seems unaware that Mesic, unlike his predecessor, will not redraw state borders on napkins, determine them by decrees, or negotiate them in the secrecy of hunting lodges. The other, Slaven Letica, commented [in Zagreb weekly Globus] after the verdict in the Blaskic case that all kinds of people could end up in The Hague, including Stipe Mesic; Mesic has indeed visited the place, but only to testify that Tudjman had infringed the Croatian constitution by sending armed forces to another state without the written consent of the Sabor's president.

Ahmici and Banja Luka

Letica went on to say that he himself need not go to Ahmici2 to ask for forgiveness, since he had resigned as early as 1991 from his post as one of Tudjman's advisers - because of Bosnia among other things - while Mesic had been in government between the autumn of 1992 and the start of 1994, i.e. during the time of the Bosnian-Croatian war. This statement contains a misconception: Willy Brandt apologized in the German people's name at the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz, even though he had spent the war fighting in the resistance movement in Germany and occupied Norway.

For his part Mesic let it be known that he had no intention of visiting Ahmici, on the grounds that both the victims and the perpetrators of the crime there were citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, so that a visit made no sense and would amount to interference, albeit well-intentioned, in the internal affairs of another state. This position reflects political opportunism, in that Mesic does not wish to alienate further that part of the Croat silent majority which would `like to be on good terms with the Muslims, but not too much'. Nor does he wish to disappoint or anger the Bosniak side. The Ahmici killers were doubtless local people, but this does not contradict the Hague verdict on the international aspect of the war and the CroÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ atian Army's physical presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Was not Gojko Susak (and not only he) a citizen of both countries - and of Canada as well?

Ahmici and all similar places must be remembered, and the `lower echelons' which The Hague has left out must be put on trial. But this is not the key issue of Mesic's trip to Bosnia, or of the current relationship between the two states and peoples. There are questions that are more important, even if they do not provoke immediate strong emotions, such as the (non-)financing of the HVO by Zagreb, or the meaning of the visit to Banja Luka.

Picula in Sarajevo and Banja Luka

One of the leading activists of the Association of Friends of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in which not only Martin Spegelj but also other generals such as Antun Tus participated, was young Tonino Picula, a member of the Social-Democratic Party. He has since become Croatia's minister of foreign affairs. One of his first acts was to replace Franjo Tudjman's photograph in his new office with a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci as `the leader of my republic'. There are those who mischievously ascribed this gesture to his `Italian connection', but Italy as such did not exist at the time of the Renaissance, and in any case Picula is ethnically a Croat not an Italian.

Picula, of course, has not been busy solely with redesigning Granic's former office. He also set off on his first diplomatic visit. At a time when members of the new Croatian government were glad to be seen in European and world capital cities, his own first destination was Sarajevo. He did not hide the symbolic and practical importance of this visit. After him came the new minister of defence Jozo Rado, a native of Duvno, in order to agree with his hosts and Madeleine Albright on a new form of subsidizing the Croat component of the Federation Army by Zagreb. Some like Professor Ivo Banac called this a betrayal of election promises - as basically remaining on the old positions with minor modifications, all with the connivance of the United States. Others saw it as the first concrete step in the withering away of the axis which held together the `Small Greater Croatia' - to paraphrase Hrvoje Sarinic, now a member of Granic's new party the Croatian Democratic Centre.

In addition to the photograph taken with Rado and his Federation hosts, Albright can add to her album also those taken at her meetings with Picula and Milorad Dodik in Banja Luka. The announcement that Mesic after visiting Slovenia (with which relations have not been good, thanks to both sides but mainly to Tudjman) would go to Sarajevo, but then on to Banja Luka, caused public concern among senior advisers to Bosniak politicians and B-H statesmen. But while it is true that - especially in politics - one should not be gullible, their concern is misplaced. By meeting on the Vrbas, Albright, Picula and Dodik - and also Bishop Komarica - did not muddy the waters of the Bosna and the Neretva. Nor will Mesic. Dodik perhaps would do so, but for such a stratagem he would need a partner. Tudjman's visits to Sarajevo were visits to the `Federation', whose purpose was to `Europeanize the Muslims' - a disgraceful phrase repeated recently by Jacques Klein. Visits to Mostar meant `coming to Croat lands'. Mesic's journeys to Sarajevo and Banja Luka, by contrast, are visits paid first of all to the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, its government and its citizens, and only then to its entities, regions, cantons and constituent peoples. After Bosnia, Mesic will travel to Turkey, and then to Strasburg and Brussels. Later, together with Racan, he will visit the United States.

Croatia and Bosnia- Herzegovina

Every Croatian government, except a wholly irresponsible one, is bound to concern itself with the Croats living in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But they will no longer be its `internal affair'. Croatia's interest is to develop good relations with both entities of Daytonland, whose population and natural and industrial resources will remain even after the eventual correctioÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ n of the Peace Agreement and the Constitution derived from it. The change of government in Zagreb has brought to Sarajevo - to both government and opposition, to intellectuals and entrepreneurs and public opinion in general - along with a sense of relief a new challenge and one less excuse, greater responsibility and an additional obligation. It is only now, after the chaos generated by Tudjman's `Realpolitik' obsessions, that real differences in the interests of the two capitals can be perceived. We are speaking of nuances, of course, but which cannot be neglected.

Because of Zagreb's communications with Slavonia and Dalmatia along the Una railway line and the Sava valley, and because of Bosnian Posavina and the transit trade between the Visegrad group of countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and soon Slovakia) and the Adriatic Sea or the Mediterranean, Croatia is interested in the normalization and pacification of the larger, more developed and for it more important part of Republika Srpska: the part that lies west of Brcko and has its centre in Banja Luka. The eastern part of RS, with which Croatia barely borders, is of interest to it only in the local contexts of Dubrovnik and Zupanja.

By contrast, for Bosnia-Herzegovina as a whole and for its every part, for Bosniaks and also for all others who in recent years have learned that only there will they be at home, the eastern part of the `Serb entity' is of the greatest importance. If it were to happen that the western part entered a process of cantonization with special links to the Federation, accompanied by investment and the return of the deportees, without any similar change being experienced in the east, then the eastern part would de facto, and eventually perhaps also de jure, be attached to Serbia. This would be a great catastrophe for Bosnia-Herzegovina, since Sarajevo, Mostar and Tuzla would become frontier towns. It will do no harm to Croatia if this is prevented; but it is Bosnia that has to take care of it, without panic but also without delay.

Translated from Ljiljan (Sarajevo), 28 March 2000

1. Unrecognized `Croat' municipality set up in part of Gornji Vakuf.

2. Site of a notorious massacre of Bosnian civilians by HVO forces that formed one of the main charges against Blaskic at The Hague.


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