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De Facto Statelet Hinders Bosnia Peace

Croat nationalists hang onto their little corner of the country, keeping Muslims in fear

Across the Neretva River from the east, take your first right, and you disappear into an urban no-man's land of devastated buildings, overturned cars, and shell craters. For three blocks nothing stirs except a taxi, cautiously ferrying passengers across the neutral zone dividing this ancient city. Then, flying from a burned-out ruin, a red-checkerboard flag welcomes you to the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosna, a country that supposedly doesn't exist.

Created in 1992 under the aegis of President Franjo Tudjman's Croatia, the Bosnian Croats' ministate was declared dead by Mr. Tudjman and US Special Envoy John Kornblum over a month ago.

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But as any visitor to Croat parts of Bosnia can tell you, Herzeg-Bosna continues to function as an independent state in violation of the Dayton accords and a host of other diplomatic agreements. The dismantling of the Croat statelet is vital to the Dayton peace process, but presents one of the greatest challenges to the international officials overseeing the implementation.

"Neither Mostar nor the Federation can function as long as this city remains divided," says Dragan Gasic, the spokesperson for the European Union administration in Mostar. "But after so much war, nobody trusts anyone here."

Virtually nobody crosses the uninhabited downtown ruins between the Muslim East Mostar to West Mostar, the capital of Herzeg-Bosna. Those who do must change taxis at the border, as vehicles with Bosnian government plates are unwelcome in Herzeg-Bosna and vice versa.

Although EU administrators have gotten the Croat mayor and his Muslim deputy to hold regular meetings, there are few signs of integration on the ground. West Mostar continues to acquire the trappings of a city in Croatia proper. Croatian products, companies, and national symbols abound. The Croatian kuna is the official currency. And the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party is nothing more than a branch of the governing party in Croatia. It not only has the same name, but attends party conferences and parliamentary sessions in Zagreb the Croatian capital.

"The [Bosnian] Croat leadership is continually finding ways to stall and put off any measures to integrate with the rest of Bosnia," says International Crisis Group Deputy Director John Fawcett. "Meanwhile they are integrating every aspect of society into Croatia proper in the hopes of presenting a fait accompli that cannot be undone."

THERE'S a reason to suspect the West Mostar leadership's commitment to Dayton. Bosnian Croat leaders only agreed to the official (if not practical) dissolution of their state after being subjected to "most thorough, robust, and unceasing pressure" from the United States through Tudjman, according to a senior Western diplomat. Tudjman has only been cooperating because he expects Croatia to be rewarded with faster integration into European institutions, diplomatic sources say.

"The cooperation we have now between the two parts of Mostar would have been impossible without the assistance of Zagreb," Mr. Gasic says. "The result of their influence has been constructive, although its hard to say what their real motivations are."

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The constitution for Bosnia provides for a weak central government, with most powers delegated to the two entities: The Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. But the Federation may remain paralyzed and difficult for the new federal institutions to govern effectively as long as Herzeg-Bosna continues to control half the territory.

Herzeg-Bosna leaders have long maintained that they can only dissolve their state administration once joint Bosnian structures and institutions are created and operating. But when the HDZ was defeated by an interethnic coalition in a June 30 municipal election in Mostar, the party refused to relinquish control of the city council, resulting in a tense five-week standoff with the international community.

Muslims who try to return to the homes from which they were expelled during the Croat-Muslim phase of the war are subjected to violence, intimidation, and police harassment. Recently 40 Muslims who tried to return to their homes were driven away by angry crowds of Croats. In other parts of the statelet, non-Croat refugees have been beaten or arrested for trying to return to their homes. In Bosnian government territory, Croat homes stand empty.

"The real barometer for the success of Dayton is whether refugees can return to their homes or not," Mr. Fawcett says. "Bosnian Croat, Muslim, and Serb officials can meet all they want, but it doesn't mean much if cleansed people are attacked and arrested, or disappear without a trace if they try to cross the lines."

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