The West must halt Croatia's ambitions now: Leading article

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Bosnia is being bungled again. The Bosnian Croats in one half of the city of Mostar are still refusing to work with the Bosnian Muslims who live in the other half. The European Union, which has the unenviable responsibility of administering the city, organised elections to a unified municipal council at the end of June. But when the Mostar Croats decided to boycott the council (after the Muslims won) the EU threatened this weekend to pull out of the city altogether.

The future does not look bright. If we can't stop Mostar being partitioned between the different nationalities, we stand very little chance of holding the Bosnian state together. The municipal election in Mostar is the forerunner of the all-Bosnian general election, due in September. Elections to multi- ethnic institutions were supposed to provide the framework for holding the Bosnian state together. But if the Mostar elections are in effect sabotaged, the prospects for a reconciliatory general election look slim. And on a united Bosnia, the entire Dayton peace accord depends.

It is worth remembering what's at stake. The Dayton peace accord brought to an end five years of war - a war driven by the pursuit of ethnic cleansing and national partition, and characterised by horrific atrocities on all sides. At the heart of the agreement was the rejection of a divided Bosnia - something that the Serbs and Croats (in and outside Bosnia) had been pursuing all along.

If Bosnia were chopped up into three separate national entities, it would not be long before the Bosnian Serbs joined a new Greater Serbia, and the Bosnian Croats joined a new Greater Croatia. The nationalists' call to arms at the beginning of the war would have been rewarded. Moreover, we would have failed to place a boundary on their expansionist ambitions: the tiny remaining Muslim Bosnian state would be in an appalling, vulnerable position.

Hence the importance of pursuing a single Bosnian state of all three nationalities - the deal on which Dayton was signed. This is also why the self-proclaimed Bosnian Croat state within a state, Herzeg-Bosnia, should not be allowed to prevail, and why the unification of Mostar (the Croats' favoured capital of Herzeg-Bosnia) is so important.

A viable Muslim-Croat city at the heart of Bosnia need not be beyond the wit of international organisation. The Muslims are game - in fact they are determined, having most to lose if Bosnia collapses. Meanwhile, the Croats are not grass-roots politicians representing the irrepressible demands of their local population. According to the EU officials in charge of Mostar, they are rather more gangsters and nationalist paramilitaries, heavily reliant on Croatia for support, and vulnerable to Croatian discipline.

The links between the Croatian government and the Herzeg-Bosnia politicians should not be underestimated. Croatian President Tudjman has, on occasion, made no secret of his long-term expansionist vision. Whether overtly, or covertly, he has been encouraging the Bosnian Croats to resist the dissolution of Herzeg-Bosnia for some time. Gojko Susak, the Croatian defence minister, is a Bosnian Croat rather than a Croatian national. Having left Bosnia for Canada, he made his money in pizza parlours and then returned to bankroll the Croatian president, and buy himself power.

Back in Bosnia, the Croat separatists fly the Croatian state flag, use the Croatian currency, and have formed themselves into the Croatian Democratic Union - the same name as Tudjman's party in Croatia itself. Tudjman has more power and influence over the Bosnian Croats than anyone else, so it is in Croatia rather than Bosnia that the Mostar problem has any chance of being solved.

What then should we do, to tackle Tudjman and to unite Mostar? Sadly, where "we" refers to the EU, the question is almost irrelevant. When the US intervened to get the Dayton peace process going, it was the final decisive blow to the crumbling credibility of the EU in the Balkans. Now no one takes anything the EU says seriously at all.

The US took a step in the right direction on Friday, by applying direct pressure to Tudjman. The Croatian President was summoned to Washington to meet President Clinton, and supposedly agreed to tell the Bosnian Croats to dissolve Herzeg-Bosnia and accept the Mostar elections. Several days, countless Croatian government envoys, and hours of Mostar negotiations later, the Croats still refuse to back down.

Faced with such resistance, the West must continue with the pressure on Tudjman, and make good the US threat to turn Croatia into an international pariah unless it completely abandons its expansionist ambitions. Croatia should be excluded from international arenas. No new trade agreements should be negotiated. We should continue to withhold membership from the Council of Europe. And we should be prepared to exclude Croatia from sporting events too.

Enforcing a united Bosnia while so many tensions remain will not be easy. Nato will need to remain heavily involved in the region long after the current end-of-year deadline has passed. But the EU should accept that it too will need to stay in Bosnia - monitoring, facilitating, and keeping a political peace.

We allowed Croatia to build its military strength and its territorial ambitions during the war. It was Croatian armed power that tipped the balance against Serbia and made peace possible. But now that peace is here - for the time being - the Serb-Croat-Muslim equation looks rather different. If anything, Croatia appears to have emerged with the winning hand. For the sake of international justice and future peace in the Balkans, we have a responsibility to put the brakes on Croatian trouble-making now.