The battle for Mostar

A solution to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s other problems will be difficult to achieve without first securing an agreement between Croats and Bosniaks concerning the town of Mostar, where October’s scheduled local elections are to be delayed.

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By Obrad Kesic, Steven Meyer and Drina Vlastelic-Rajic

As most attention focuses on the battles being waged over the budget, local elections in Srebrenica and the continual tit‐for‐tat commemorations of the last war’s victims in Bosnia‐Herzegovina, a very intense and bitter fight is under way between Croats and Bosniaks over the town of Mostar. At the heart of the dispute are two BiH Constitutional Court rulings (June 2011 and January 2012) that the election of three delegates from each of the six city areas to the City Council was unconstitutional. This ruling basically holds that it is discriminatory and unconstitutional that an area of the city with a population of almost 30,000 citizens elects the same number of delegates to the town assembly as an area of 7,000.

The unconstitutional election system was created by a decision in January 2004 by the previous High Representative, Paddy Ashdown, that imposed the city statute and led to the Croat challenge in front of the Constitutional Court. The Court itself was careful in avoiding any direct decision over the High Representative’s imposed statute, but the decision clearly implies that the election process is only the end product of arrogant and short‐sighted legislative engineering by Ashdown. Both Croats and Bosniaks have been less cautious in discussing Ashdown’s action, Enes Ratkusic captures the prevailing mood among both Bosniaks and Croats in his statement that, “It [the Court’s decision] was all the logical consequence of the fact that Ashdown’s statute was a classic example of the irresponsibility of one strongman of the international community, who wanted to establish that his word meant more than the constitution of the land to which he was sent in order to protect justice.”

For Bosniaks this decision is perceived to directly threaten their “existence” in Herzegovina and would lead to Mostar’s becoming a Croatian “capital” city for the Croat dominated Cantons. Mostar’s Mufti, Seid ef. Smajkic has been one of the loudest critics of the Constitutional Court decision, proclaiming that Mostar is a “Bosniak” city and claiming that the law’s implementation would complete “all of that which failed to be achieved by the war and ethnic cleansing,” while the recently deceased Nijaz Durakovic claimed that it was another confirmation that the Bosniaks had become “ a minority absolutely without rights and humiliated.” The SDA has become the political combatant trying to prevent an implementation of the ruling that would result in a “one man, one vote” type of solution that would lead to Croat election dominance as Croats have about 12,000 more voters than Bosniaks in the city.

Croats view the Bosniak opposition to the ruling as confirmation that Bosniak political and intellectual elites only want a Bosnia in which they “rule” and in which Croats (and Serbs) are treated as minorities and second class citizens. They also view this as another example of how Croats have been stripped of their rights and of how they are discriminated against by Bosniak dominated Sarajevo. For them, Mostar is the last line of defense for Croat rights; a defeat here would complete the humiliation inflicted by the election of Zeljko Komsic as the Croat member of the Presidency by mostly Bosniak voters and by the High Representative’s decision that allowed the formation of a Federation government without the two largest Croat political parties, the HDZ BiH and HDZ 1990. Similarly to the Bosniak belief that Mostar for them represents an existential question in Herzegovina, most Croats in Herzegovina believe that “losing” Mostar would make life untenable for Croats in Bosnia.

Complicating an already complicated situation are three additional problems that leave little room for compromise for both sides; these are the Croat/Bosniak confrontation over the Federation government, the problems and rivalry between the two (SDP and SDA) Bosniak coalition partners and the very dreadful economic situation within the Federation. The Federation government from its formation has been viewed by both HDZ parties as being illegal and they have consistently worked for its reconstruction. The SDA is willing and eager to re‐establish the long partnership with the HDZ, but the SDP fears being marginalized by this potential regrouping of power within the Federation. This coupled with the positioning of the SDA to fully establish itself as the main defender of Bosniak interests ahead of October’s local elections has left the SDP flat‐footed and unprepared to either reach an agreement with the HDZ or to be sucked into the SDA led opposition to the Constitutional Court ruling. The Federation’s near bankrupt state has also increased social pressure on all political parties and has further stressed the SDA‐SDP partnership.

As Bosniak frustration increases over their political elites’ inability to create a united front against perceived Serb and Croat threats to a unitary state and as they are increasingly powerless to exert pressure on the RS, they are more determined to at least put the Federation “in order.” For the SDP and SDA this has come to mean a move to try to transform the complicated and inefficient Federation into a more centralized entity government along the lines of the RS.

As the time runs out for a deal on Mostar’s statute that would allow local elections as scheduled and as the rhetoric heats up on both sides, there are serious concerns that the current war of words can easily slip into violence in Mostar and in neighboring Stolac. High Representative Inzko, like his predecessor Ashdown has done his fair share in contributing to the tensions between Croats and Bosniaks and is (wisely) unlikely to act, first because of a lack of support for any action by EU states and because any action on his part would probably lead to a rapid escalation of the conflict and may serve as a trigger for violence. Inaction on his part is not a bad thing as most of Inzko’s actions over the last few years have tended to hurl the country into deeper crisis.

It may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but not by much, to claim that as Mostar goes so goes Bosnia. For now it is hard to imagine a solution to Bosnia’s other problems without an agreement between Croats and Bosniaks over Mostar. Ironically, the Serbs have almost no role in this confrontation and are basically spectators to Croat/Bosniak showdown, where no matter who wins, the joint Bosnian state is sure to lose.

Obrad Kesic, Steven Meyer and Drina Vlastelic-Rajic are all part of TSM Global Consultants.

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