Greater Croatia

Mark Thompson

The famous gentility of Zagreb is wearing thin. Croatia’s tidy capital has been degraded by almost two years of war, as has the regime which has held power since the free elections of 1990. Across the country, queues for black bread form before dawn. Subsidised by the state, black bread is far cheaper than other kinds; with the average monthly wage sinking below the equivalent of £40, only one in five Croatians employed, quarter of a million displaced persons, and half a million destitute Bosnian refugees, many people need to save about 20p on the daily loaf.

The shops sell out their quotas on arrival, so deliveries are staggered through the morning. Shoppers bring their old carrier bags to save 5p on a new one. Last summer’s bags, printed with the Olympic symbol from the Barcelona Games, are still in evidence. Below the symbol the caption reads: CROATIAN OLYMPIC COMMITTEE. Never mind the superb basketball team, or Goran Ivanisevic the patriotic tennis star: the committee comes first, and everyone has to know it. Communists become nationalists, liberals mostly follow suit, but bureaucrats are bureaucrats for life, and their pre-eminence in Croatia has not been eroded or bound by law.

The Olympic Committee was led by Antun Vrdoljak, better known for running state television and radio with an iron hand. Said to be one of only two people in President Tudjman’s inner circle with the will to speak his mind, Vrdoljak has purged the main media of sceptics, Serbs and other undesirables, and ensured that they stay unpolluted by criticism of the powers and policies that be. Rumour has it that he will shortly be appointed ambassador to Peru. Perhaps he has served his usefulness. He makes a dismal impression on Western media-monitoring delegations, and is currently embroiled in an undignified court case with one of Croatia’s best known journalists, a woman he described in an open letter as ‘a barren sow’. (Anti-abortionist misogyny can make democratic Croatia a brutal environment for women.)

Television à la Vrdoljak takes some getting used to. A prestige series called Croats Who Made the World began with Pope Sixtus V, who wasn’t, so far as anyone knows, a Croat. The evening news on 14 April featured an attack on the previous night’s flagship current-affairs programme for interviewing an analyst whose pessimistic forecast had ‘disturbed the public’. Far worse was the moment in mid-January when the newscaster, after alleging that Muslim extremists were killing Croat civilians in central Bosnia, looked up from his script to ask a question. What did the extremists suppose would happen to the refugees in Croatia if these attacks persisted? This unembarrassed threat, part of a media offensive against ‘mujahedin’, coincided with the moment when Croat forces were clearing Muslims from areas in central Bosnia allocated to the Croats by the Vance-Owen plan. No reprimand came from the Security Council: it knew very well the part played by the plan in causing the violence. The recent atrocities around Vitez are an entirely logical development, aggravated by Croat fear that the plan might be dropped altogether because of Serb intransigence. Western armed intervention, should it ever come, probably would not meet active Croat resistance. The Croats have no wish to take on all-comers. More likely, intervention would dent Croat arrogance towards Bosnian Muslims and provoke a serious reappraisal in Zagreb.

The Croats’ haste to enforce the Vance-Owen ‘solution’ for Bosnia-Herzegovina before it had been agreed by the other two sides is soon explained. It is a tenet of Croatian nationalism that Bosnia – Herzegovina cannot be viable as an independent state because too much of it – in the most extreme version, all of it – belongs to Croatian ‘historic and ethnic space’. In other words, because the medieval kingdom of Croatia included the present territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina, that territory is forever and essentially Croatian. (Serb nationalists take the same view of Kosovo.) It follows that Bosnian Muslims are really Croats whose ancestors adopted Islam under the Ottomans; hence they cannot be a nation, with equal rights to statehood. The elected Sarajevo government’s idea, abandoned under pressure from Vance-Owen, of restoring the republic as a unitary, secular ‘civil state’ with national guarantees appears to Croat (and Serb) believers as nothing more than a liberal veil for majorizacija or ‘majorisation’ by the Muslims, who before this war formed 43 per cent of the population. Were that to rise to 50 per cent, they would be in a position to capture the machinery of state by a putsch or by creeping occupation, and sooner rather than later, the Croats (and Serbs) would be stripped of their rights.

Tudjman himself is a firm believer in this scenario, and loses no chance to warn against majorizacija. Meanwhile the Muslim leaders have shown no sign of trying to copy Zagreb or Belgrade: their priority has been survival. But the mind of the latterday Balkan nationalist is walled with mirrors and lit by paranoia. Tudjman doubtless recalls the alacrity with which his government reduced the constitutional status of Croatia’s Serbs in 1990. The President sees himself as leader of Croats everywhere, from Zagreb to Buenos Aires, and believes that only a comprehensive accord with the Serbs (likewise envisaged as a totality) can resolve the Balkan Question. In a sense he is right: there has to be some accord between these two nations. But if Croats and Serbs are the negotiating parties, then Bosnia-Herzegovina represents only small change in the larger deal. The territorial model Tudjman favours is broadly the 1939 settlement, which annexed a quarter of Bosnia-Herzegovina to Croatia proper. The Second World War happened too soon for anyone to know whether that experiment would have saved royal Yugoslavia from permanent national crisis. Extreme vulnerability obliged Tudjman to recognise Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence in April 1992, but his deeper convictions continued to steer policy even when Croat and Bosnian forces were fighting side by side, and Croatia was absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Imagine then his and his government’s delight when Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen proposed to restore the outline of the 1939 settlement almost exactly. A quarter of the republic’s territory for 17 per cent of the population! And the right quarter at that: the historic ethnic space of western Herzegovina and Posavina. The arid ranges of western Herzegovina have a special place in the national mythology. Some communities there are more nearly pure Croat than almost any inside Croatia, and many feel their national identity with a blind passion which, inside Croatia, is common only in the Dinaric regions adjacent to Herzegovina and farther north, between the Dalmatian coast and the border with Bosnia. The role of such sparse, backward, clannish, patriarchal, arms-bearing communities was important on both sides in the Serb-Croat war. The Serbs of Knin led the original rebellion against Croatia in the summer of 1990, and the Dinaric Croats were readier than others to respond in kind.

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[*] The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Break-Up 1980-92 (Verso, 372 pp., £12.95, 11 March, 0 86091 593 X).

[†] The Days of the Consuls, translated by Celia Hawkesworth with Bogdan Rakic (Forest Books, 396pp., £10.95, 1992, 1 856 10024 3).The Damned Yard and Other Stories, translated and edited by Celia Hawkesworth (Forest Books, 219 pp., £9.95, 1992, 1 856 10022 7). Conversation with Goya, translated by Celia Hawkesworth and Andrew Harvey (Menard Press/School of Slavonic and East European Studies, 80 pp., £7, 1992, 0 903 40077 4).