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21 Apr, 2009 08:29

Croats claim independence from Bosnia and Herzegovina

Almost two decades after Bosnia and Herzegovina gained its independence, it's still a place of deep ethnic divisions, where calls for independence from Croats are getting louder day by day.

Once part of Yugoslavia, Bosnia became home to three distinct ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

Seated around a large table, Croats who call themselves an alternative government to the one that exists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, are planning a future state.

“We don’t have any kind of federal unit to protect our rights here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We don’t even have media in our own language. The only way that we can protect ourselves is through a Croatian federal unit,” explains its president Petar Milic, who is also a Croatian Member of the Federal Parliament.

The calls for independence were set in motion by the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord that brought three bloody years of war to an end.

Under the deal, two entities were set up – a Bosniak-Croat federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb Republic.

“The main reason for all the problems now is that Bosniak Muslims are a majority. We don’t have any legal representatives at state levels of power in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reason is we don’t have a legal framework, or any kind of opportunity to establish equality with the two other peoples,” says Leo Plockinic, President of the Alternative Government of the Croatian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Zoran Zolko was a commander of the Croatian defense council and spent the war years fighting in the southern city of Mostar, where he was wounded three times.

He says whereas once he fought for independence from Serbia alongside Muslims – today he’s fighting for independence from his former allies.

“At the beginning of the war, we were fighting for the liberation of all the people in Bosnia-Herzogovina. The Muslims had our support, there were many of them who were fighting in the Croatian defense council. But in the end, we were betrayed by them. Many ran away. I don’t believe we can live together. In principle, maybe, but in my soul – I don’t believe it,” said Zoran Zolko, president of Croatian War Invalids From Homeland War.

The city of Mostar showcases these ethnic divisions more clearly than anywhere else in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is the country’s fifth largest city, and political control there is equally shared between Croats and Bosniaks. But tensions are high, and the city is divided.

Through the middle of the city runs the Neretva river, which separates the predominantly Croatian side of the city to the west from the Muslim side to the east. Relations between both sides are so bad that when Croats cross the bridge they come with a police escort.

Kenan Divljak is a tour guide in the Muslim part of the city. He says no one there supports Croatian calls for independence and Mostar, like the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, needs to remain part of the country.

“Mostar is a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar cannot be an independent country, because the town has just 320,000 inhabitants,” Kenan believes.

Mostar is a reminder of how unstable the Bosnian federation really is – nearly 15 years after the Dayton deal was signed

So far, Croatian calls for independence have been overshadowed by events elsewhere in the Balkans. But should they one day win – their success could potentially have disastrous effects throughout the region.