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Croatia ends Bosnia Croat separatist dreams

MOSTAR, Mar 31, 2000 -- (Reuters) Many Bosnian Croats in the southern Herzegovina region harbored for years the dream of breaking away from Bosnia and uniting with ethnic kin across the border in Croatia.

Backed financially and militarily by Zagreb, their forces fought the Moslem-led government in Sarajevo in a bitter conflict in 1993. They even formed their own Herzeg-Bosnia statelet during the Bosnian war.

Bosnia's borders were left unchanged in the 1995 Dayton peace treaty, but Bosnian Croat hard-liners continued to nurse separatist aims supported by the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman and his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).

Tudjman's newly-elected successor Stipe Mesic, a member of a centrist coalition which this year ended a decade of nationalist rule, made clear those days were over during a recent visit to Sarajevo.

"We want to let it be known that meddling in Bosnia will be stopped," Mesic told the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.

Herzeg-Bosnia should have been abolished in 1994 when the United States helped broker Bosnia's Moslem-Croat federation, but Western officials said some of its institutions remained.

They often accused Tudjman and Bosnian Croat officials of obstructing the implementation of Dayton, which ended the 1992-1995 war by dividing the country into the federation and the Serb republic.

MESIC REJECTS DIVISION

For Mesic, who parted company with Tudjman in 1994 over his support for Bosnian Croat separatists, the idea of dividing Bosnia belongs to the past.

"Those remains of Herzeg-Bosnia, which give some people an illusion that Bosnia can be divided, should cease to exist," he said.

Croatia's new authorities, eager to mend relations with their Balkan neighbors in order to meet conditions for closer ties with Europe, have also moved to match words with deeds.

Croatian Defence Minister Jozo Rados and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright signed an agreement in March under which military aid to Bosnian Croats will be transparent.

Some independent analysts have estimated that the controversial aid from Zagreb amounted to as much as 900 million German marks ($440 million) a year. That is expected to be cut with the arrival of Croatia's new leadership.

The aid must now also be approved by Bosnia's top military body. Croatian government officials said most assistance would be used for social needs, economic recovery, education and culture rather than helping to finance the military.

"We cannot pay for a military in another country and especially we cannot do it in an untransparent way," Mesic said.

His remarks were unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm among Bosnian Croats in Mostar, the largest town in the southern Herzegovina region and the hard-liners' stronghold.

Damir, a 39-year-old shop owner, fought in the war in support for unification with Croatia.

"For several years you are fighting with a belief that we are Croatia's biggest county, that's how we started the war."

He told Reuters he now felt abandoned by Zagreb. "It certainly does not suit us to be separated from Croatia with a fence and to become foreigners there."

Croats made up 17 percent, or 700,000, of all Bosnians before the war but many of them left territories controlled by Moslems and Serbs and settled in Croatia.

Herzegovina is also the place where many Croatian politicians and wealthy businessmen who helped create Zagreb's Bosnia policy over the last decade were born.

Mesic in his election campaign sought to capitalize on the frustration of ordinary Croatians with the powerful "Herzegovina lobby", promising to curb its influence and to urge Bosnian Croats to work more with Moslems and Serbs.

HDZ SAYS HERZEG-BOSNIA DOES NOT EXIST

"He says that he does not want to help Herzeg-Bosnia but we reply that it does not exist anymore," said Zoran Tomic, a spokesman for the Bosnian branch of HDZ.

Despite the HDZ's fall from power in Croatia, its Bosnian namesake appears to remain dominant among Bosnian Croats, who now account for 10 percent of Bosnia's population.

Tomic dismissed those who predict the party may suffer heavily in April 8 municipal elections as a consequence of the Croatian upheaval. "We still expect to win in all the municipalities we now control."

But he acknowledged that the Bosnian HDZ was under pressure to reform itself into a centrist party. "There are opinions within the HDZ that it should happen faster," he said.

In a clear sign of changing times, a Bosnian Croat war veterans' association - a traditional HDZ constituency - said in March that it might urge people to vote against the party in protest at alleged corruption and misuse of power.

Political analyst James Lyon at the International Crisis Group think tank said the HDZ clearly felt the pressure. "They are panicking," Lyon said.

Former party leader Kresimir Zubak, who quit the HDZ in 1998 to form the opposition New Croat Initiative after a row with Tudjman, took a similar line, describing it as disoriented.

"I think that Croats here will more and more turn themselves towards moderate forces...most of them now feel that Bosnia-Herzegovina is our country," Zubak said.



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