March 21, 2008 / 12:31 AM / 10 years ago

Ethnic Croats feel sidelined in Bosnia, leaders say

MOSTAR, Bosnia (Reuters) - The “Maja” beauty salon in the divided Bosnian town of Mostar is buzzing with the chatter of Croat and Muslim women looking for a fresh hairdo, a quick manicure and the latest juicy gossip.

The relaxed chitchat would have been unimaginable 10 years ago when the wounds of the 1992-95 war were fresher, and such progress, already slow, now faces fresh obstacles as Croats grow disenchanted with their status in Bosnia and friction mounts.

Mostar was split by the war along the emerald Neretva river that runs through it: Croats to the West, Muslims to the East. From a position of power as the majority in the city, the Croats have for years obstructed its reintegration.

But in Bosnia as a whole they form the smallest of the main ethnic groups and now, as their influence wanes through emigration and dwindling support from next-door Croatia, they are crying foul and demanding an improvement of their status.

“The Croats have constitutional rights on paper but not in decision-making at any level of governance,” said Bozo Ljubic, head of HDZ 1990, one of two Croat parties in the Bosnian government.

Under the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war, the Croats are one of three equal nations making up Bosnia, along with the more numerous Muslims and Serbs.

They share the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina -- one of Bosnia’s autonomous halves -- with four times as many Bosnian Muslims, while ethnic Serbs dominate the other half, the Serb Republic.

Following the secession of Kosovo from Serbia last month as willed by its 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, the Bosnian Serbs are increasingly restive, warning that they too constitute an overwhelming majority and may decide to secede from Bosnia.

At the weekend five Croat parties signed a document demanding a five-year-old law ensuring proportional political representation for each ethnic group finally be implemented, which would boost their influence in the federation.

They also called for veto powers in national government.

The initiative, as well as their calls for revision of Dayton to sub-divide Bosnia’s two regions into several units based on ethnic and economic criteria, is unlikely to win the support of Muslims and Serbs.

The Serbs are wary of any dilution of their autonomy while the Muslims fear Croats would form their own region in Bosnia.

The West has also dismissed calls for changes to Dayton.

“We are hostages of Dayton for 13 years now,” said Dragan Covic, head of the main Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party.

“Nobody asks us about anything in any of the two regions and we have no constitutional right to make decisions equally as do the other two peoples.”

DISORIENTED AND DIVIDED

Analysts agree the Croats are in an unfavorable position, partly because of their number and partly because they no longer have a powerful patron, whereas the Bosnian Serbs use their ties to Belgrade and the threat of a breakaway to win concessions.

The number of Croats in Bosnia has nearly halved from the 800,000 it was before the war, with most moving to Croatia.

Moreover, Croatia has been steadily withdrawing its support for Bosnian Croat nationalists who sought a union with the motherland during the war, staying away from hardline rhetoric that could jeopardize its European Union membership bid.

The vacuum leaves Bosnian Croat leaders disoriented and divided, which in turn limits their political effectiveness, said sociologist Slavo Kukic.

“Bosnian Croat political elites behave in a castrated way,” he says. “Nobody has a political vision, they are completely irrelevant. The fate of this country is decided based on the political goals of the Muslims and the Serbs.”

Kukic says Croatian party leaders only remember the Bosnian Croats at election time, when they have a vote as members of the “diaspora.” Some 35 percent of Bosnian Croats voted in Croatia’s parliamentary election in January.

The Croats have supported EU demands for Bosnia to strengthen its central state at the expense of the regions, a condition for closer ties with the EU, and are seen in Brussels as the most amenable group in Bosnia’s uneasy power-sharing.

But some Croats feel it’s got them nowhere.

“The constructive approach of Bosnian Croats has been awarded by cementing the existing structure,” said Zvonko Jurisic, the head of the small Croatian Rights Party. “ In such a constellation, the Croats have no chance.”

In Mostar, where Muslims and Croats battled each other bitterly in 1993-94 and scars of war are still visible on bullet-ridden houses at the former frontline, the practicalities of daily life bring former rivals together again.

Ivana is among a group of Croats who chose to study management at the “Dzemal Bijedic” university in the Muslim part of Mostar because the Croat-run university did not have a similar program.

“After the war, it was difficult to cross from one section to another,” she said, adding that she decided to study there after her friends had signed up.

“Then love happened, friendships ... Actually, I feel little strange now talking about it. I don’t make friends based on who is Muslim or Croat. It’s politics that makes problems.”

Additional reporting by Tina Jelin and Zoran Radosavljevic in Zagreb; Editing by Ellie Tzortzi and Richard Meares

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