Even the Balkans get good news occasionally. Croatia's center-left opposition trounced the late President Franjo Tudjman's nationalist HDZ party in the Jan. 3 parliamentary election, leading Western observers to place their bets that Zagreb could move soon to end its international isolation.
The new coalition, led by Ivica Racan, campaigned on a platform that was music to the West's ears: economic liberalization, fiscal austerity, clean government, and improved human rights.
If implemented, these measures would ease Croatia's entry into Western institutions - and secure financial aid to sweeten the tough reforms that Croatia's moribund economy needs.
Much depends on the presidential election on Jan. 24, when Mr. Racan's coalition ally Drazen Budisa will face the HDZ candidate, Foreign Minister Mate Granic, and others in a crowded field. Mr. Budisa currently leads in polls, but even if Mr. Granic wins, his moderate leanings and relatively strong ties with the West will likely spell a more pragmatic turn in Croatian politics.
That's more than just good news for Croatia. Bosnia also stands to benefit. Implementation of the 1995 Dayton accords still languishes as ethnic divisions remain frozen and the economy aid-dependent. But Dayton could get a boost if Zagreb pushes the Bosnian-Croats into closer cooperation with their federation partners, the Bosnian-Muslims.
"Any new government in Zagreb is more likely to cooperate on Bosnia - not because it believes in Bosnia, but because it recognizes that if Croatia plays ball with the West, the West's goods will come quickly," says Ben Ward, Croatia expert at Human Rights Watch.
For now, the Bosnian-Croat/Muslim federation remains perilously fragile. Corruption, economic stagnation, and one-party nationalist rule are widespread, especially in Bosnian-Croat territory. But if the West backs Zagreb, and Racan's coalition fulfills its campaign promises, Bosnia could see progress on several fronts:
Institution-building. Bosnian-Croats still resist cooperating with Muslims, maintaining their own army, police, and bureaucracy in direct violation of the Dayton accords.
Mr. Tudjman funded these parallel institutions and ensured that noncompliance with Dayton was financially viable; the Bosnian-Croat army traditionally received more than 80 percent of its funding from Zagreb. Tudjman also financed Bosnian HDZ paramilitary groups, which actively thwarted refugee returns.
But this recent political sea change will likely curtail - or end - Zagreb's handouts to the Bosnian-Croats. The government now plans to slash the budget deficit and improve its standing with the West.
Croatian citizenship for Bosnian-Croats (who voted overwhelmingly for the nationalist HDZ) could eventually be revoked. And without Zagreb's backing, HDZ hard-liners in Bosnia could find cooperation with Bosnian-Muslims necessary, if not palatable.
War criminals. To be fair, Tudjman had a credible record with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Under Western pressure, Croatia had already handed over most of its suspects charged with war crimes during the Bosnian-Croat/Muslim conflict in 1993-94. But one sought-after suspect remains at large: Mladen ("Tuta") Naletilic, a key player in the atrocities in Mostar in 1993. While Tudjman had balked on his extradition, the new government is more likely to dispatch Naletilic quickly to The Hague.
Refugee returns. Only 28 percent of refugees from Bosnia have returned since 1995, and most have settled in areas where they are the ethnic majority. "Minority" returns account for only 5 percent of all refugees. A best-case scenario could see Racan's government pressuring Bosnian-Croats to allow Muslims to return to their homes in Croat-controlled towns.
The new government could make a big difference for the 200,000-plus Serbs who fled Croatia during the Croatian Army's 1995 counteroffensive. Only a handful have been able to return, as Croatia's laws on citizenship and housing have made it all but impossible for refugees to reclaim homes.
With the new coalition, some recourse for these refugees is in sight. But it wouldn't do much to ease the refugee crisis within Bosnia proper. Most of Croatia's Serb refugees fled to Serbia rather than to Bosnia's Serb entity, which isn't budging on refugee returns.
Daunting obstacles will complicate progress on all these matters. The nationalist HDZ remains strong within Croatia's upper parliamentary house, judiciary, military, and police. The Bosnian-Croats made their nationalist preferences clear in the Jan. 3 election and are unlikely to budge.
HDZ hard-liners in Bosnia still exercise an iron grip over local politicians, courts, and media. If they unequivocally reject Zagreb's moderate turn, they might opt for self-imposed isolation and poverty for the sake of power. Finally, the myriad international organizations now working in Bosnia still lack robust means to enforce Dayton. Until all these issues are tackled, an integrated, prosperous, and democratic Bosnia remains elusive.
Still, the recent elections were a step in the right direction. By sending moderates to parliament, Croatians showed that normal politics can triumph - even in the Balkans.
*Helen Fessenden is an associate editor for the journal Foreign Affairs, in New York.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society