The Christian Science Monitor
July 31, 2001, Tuesday
Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Medjugorje - the well-known Catholic pilgrimage site in the Balkans - today is a place
of clashing symbols and rising discontent. Crosses dot nearby hills, where shepherd
children say the Virgin Mary whispers messages of peace. But in town, the nationalist flag
of the illegal Croatian state of Herzeg-Bosna flies
defiantly from the lampposts.
In the cafes, villagers grumble about the international administration of Bosnia.
"Foreigners imposed this federation with the Muslims on us, and we can't oppose their
all-powerful armies," says Vasilj Zeljko, a Croatian native of Medjugorje. "No
one asked us what we think. They banned our elected representatives and put people of
their own choosing in our government."
Attempts by the international administrators of Bosnia to weaken Croatian nationalists
after a run at secession in March have bitterly stung this overwhelmingly Croatian area.
The nationalists have responded by intensifying their calls for Croatian autonomy in
western Bosnia, a prospect that a report by the International Crisis Group in Sarajevo
labels the "biggest challenge to the Dayton Peace Accords since they were signed in
"The creation of a Croatian entity in Bosnia is just not in accordance with
Dayton," says Henning Philipp, a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which organized the last elections in Bosnia. "We
certainly don't need more divisions in this country."
International analysts have long worried that Croatian nationalism could destabilize
this fragile region. The OSCE structured last November's elections to disadvantage
ultra-nationalist parties like the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ), which has the support of
90 percent of the population of Medjugorje. In March, when HDZ leaders, including the
Croatian member of the Bosnian presidency at the time, Ante Jelavic, declared Croatian
self-government within the Bosnian-Croat Federation, they were stripped of their public
Last week, Mr. Jelavic reiterated his warning that his party will organize a referendum
to establish an autonomous Croatian entity unless the new elections law, which is expected
to be passed this week, reverses last autumn's anti-nationalist effort. The result is a
major constitutional crisis.
The ruling multiethnic Social Democratic Party, backed by international organizations
eager to disentangle themselves from Bosnia, wants to set up a centralized state with an
ethnically blind electoral system. The HDZ, as well as Serb nationalist parties, wants to
retain the system of parallel institutions and representation on an ethnic basis.
The Bosnian Croats, who make up just 15 percent of the country, cannot wield much
influence under the new majority-rule system. "The HDZ received 80 ercent of the
votes from Croats in Bosnia, but we were forced out of the government by foreigners and
their Serb and Muslim allies," says Dubravko Horvat, a vice president of the HDZ.
"So, in effect, Croats have no political representation in Bosnia."
International officials contend that with their own police force, army units, schools,
and other institutions, Bosnian Croats have too much autonomy, not too little. "The
Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina have unprecedented privileges,
compared to minority groups in other countries," says Michael Hryshchyshyn, a senior
adviser in the international administration of Bosnia.
An alternative explanation for the HDZ's actions is that the party is defending its
political and economic stronghold around the lucrative Medjugorje site. "This isn't a
question of principle," says Robert Beecroft, head of the OSCE mission in Bosnia. "It is a question of greed."
Last spring, international troops took over Hercegovacka Banka, which international
officials allege was funneling money to the HDZ.
Observers say the loss of the bank has only made Medjugorje that much more important to
Croatian nationalists, because of the millions of dollars it brings in. An obscure
mountain village until June 1981, when six children said they began to see apparitions of
the Virgin Mary, Medjugorje now draws about a million pilgrims annually.
"Medjugorje now has considerable economic and political significance," says
Mark Wheeler, director of the International Crisis Group in Sarajevo. "The feeling
that God is on your side always helps, not to mention that Medjugorje
literally bankrolls the HDZ. There is very little space here between the church, the
party, and the gangsters."
Ivan Sesar, pastor of Medjugorje parish, dismisses the question of the shrine's
connection to the HDZ.
Close ties between religion and politics were a factor in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war,
which pitted Catholic Croats against Eastern Orthodox Serbs in a struggle to divide up
Bosnian territory and expel the Muslim population.
For many Croats in western Herzegovina, even advantages in the election law will not
make them want to be citizens of Bosnia. "Our true motherland is Croatia, and we
dream of joining Croatia," Zeljko says.
But Croatia no longer wants the Herzegovina Croats. Nationalist parties lost the Croatian elections in 2000, and Prime Minister Ivica Racan increasingly supports western aims. He recently denounced the HDZ proclamations of self-rule, and last week, Croatia extradited a top general whom war crimes prosecutors in The Hague accuse of overseeing the murder of Serb civilians in 1993. In Medjugorje, both moves are seen as betrayals. "Croats are guilty of nothing," says Vasilj Jozo, an elderly grape farmer in the village. "The generals were defending our Croatian land. They are heroes."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor