The Croatian government and armed forces, acting in concert with their Bosnian Croat proteges, are moving as fast as they can to establish complete and permanent control over areas of western and central Bosnia that they have captured from the Bosnian Serbs since late July. In their vision of an expanded zone of Croat authority, it appears there is little room for the Bosnian Muslims, their nominal allies, except as distinctly subordinate partners.
Consider recent developments in Bosansko Grahovo, a Serb-held town in western Bosnia that fell to the Croats two months ago, and Jajce, a west- central Bosnian town which followed suit last week. No sooner had Bosansko Grahovo fallen than the Bosnian Croat authorities changed its name to Hrvatsko Grahovo, thus rendering it "Croatian Grahovo" instead of "Bosnian Grahovo".
In Jajce last Friday, the Bosnian Croats raised the chequerboard flag of the Croatian state over the town hall and staged a ceremony in which the emblem of the HVO, the Bosnian Croat armed forces, was placed on the police station. In this way the Bosnian Croats announced the effective annexation of Jajce, a town whose population, according to Croatia's official statistics, was only 39 per cent Croat before the Bosnian war broke out in April 1992.
The same trend is evident in other captured towns, such as Glamoc and Drvar. Thousands of Serbs have fled their homes in these towns, which the Bosnian Croats have designated not primarily as part of the internationally recognised state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but as Bosnian Croat territory.
In taking these measures, the Bosnian Croats, who constituted about 17 per cent of Bosnia's 4.4 million people before the war, are reinforcing the breakaway state in south-west Bosnia, known as Herzeg-Bosnia, which they created in July 1992. It is a mirror image of the Bosnian Serb rebel state of Republika Srpska.
Herzeg-Bosnia flies Croatia's flag, uses Croatia's currency, and was armed and funded by Zagreb in its year-long war with the Muslims that ended in early 1994. As with the Bosnian Serb leaders and Serbia, the Bosnian Croat leaders had no intention of remaining in a sovereign Bosnian state where Muslims were the largest nationality.
They wanted to unite with their motherland, Croatia, and it was only with great reluctance that they capitulated to US pressure last year and agreed to form a federation with the Muslims. However, the federation has remained an empty shell in most respects, with the Bosnian Croat leadership continuing to show more loyalty to Zagreb than to Sarajevo.
The federation's supporters say it has proved its military worth, in the sense that the allied Bosnian Croat and Muslim-led armies are now sweeping all before them. However, most of the victories are Croat, not Muslim successes. There can be no doubt who considers himself the big brother in the relationship, a point underlined by Croatia's strategy in the last two years of rationing the amount of covert arms reaching the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
As for the Bosnian Croats, they have revealed their true feelings about the federation by blocking the reunification of the Croat and Muslim halves of Mostar. They have sought to preserve the division of the old capital of Ottoman Herzegovina along purified national lines in exactly the same way that the Bosnian Serbs have tried to keep Sarajevo partitioned.
It is doubtful that any of these Bosnian Croat actions would have been possible without the consistent support of President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and his ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Indeed, some of the most influential HDZ figures come from the Herzeg-Bosnia area, and wealthy Bosnian Croat emigres in the West have bankrolled Mr Tudjman's party.
The question therefore arises whether Croatia is genuinely committed to the Geneva agreement, reached 11 days ago, under which 51 per cent of Bosnia would go to the Muslim-Croat federation and 49 per cent to the Bosnian Serbs. Or does Mr Tudjman still yearn for the map of Greater Croatia which he drew last May on the back of a menu for a VE-Day banquet in London?
This map indicated that he wanted Croatia to absorb Banja Luka as well the whole of western Bosnia. Sure enough, on Sunday night one of the President's closest advisers, Bosiljko Misetic, confirmed that the capture of Banja Luka was a Croatian war aim.
Another sign that Croatia may try to slip out of the 51-49 per cent division of Bosnia came last Wednesday, when the influential Zagreb newspaper Vjesnik denounced the Geneva deal as "impossible, abortive, lost, stupid, wicked and unfeasible". The paper's main complaint was that the US-inspired agreement offered the Bosnian Serbs too much, in terms of land and a proposed close association with Serbia.
Croatia is unlikely, certainly in the short term, to seek a formal extension of its borders to incorporate the fast-expanding "state" of Herzeg-Bosnia. Such a step would deprive it of almost all international support for its desire to regain eastern Slavonia, the last region of Croatia still under rebel Serb control.
But in some respects Croatia can afford to wait. For most practical purposes, Herzeg-Bosnia already operates as part of Croatia, just as there is every reason to suppose that the Republika Srpska will operate as part of Serbia once the rift between Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic is healed.
The real losers are the Bosnian Muslims. They are being penned in a small space between two larger nations, both of which view them as an inferior people. It is not an outcome that inspires confidence for the future.
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