Bosnia and Hercegovina politics: Quick View - Catholic Church in BiH criticises calls for third entity

Content Type
Country Data and Maps
Economist Intelligence Unit
No abstract is available.
Politics, News Analysis
Political Geography
Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnian Croat political leadership has pledged that in 2017 it will finally improve the status of Bosnian Croats in Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH). Any action on such a pledge risks escalating political and ethnic tensions in the country and worsening already tense relations between BiH and Croatia. However, the BiH Catholic Church has unexpectedly come out in opposition to Bosnian Croat calls for a third entity in BiH. Given the church's influence among Bosnian Croats, this presents a significant obstacle to the BiH Croat leadership's plans, which had included co-operation with Bosnian Serbs in their calls for greater ethnic rights and autonomy.

According to the 2013 census, Bosnian Croats make up about 15% of the BiH population, by far the smallest of the country's three constituent peoples (Bosniaks-Bosnian Muslims-Croats and Serbs), which, according to the constitution, enjoy equal rights. However, because of their smaller numbers, Bosnian Croats are often outvoted at various administrative levels by Bosniaks, who make up just over half of the population, as well as by Bosnian Serbs, who account for about 31% of the population. Nevertheless, many local and international officials highlight the fact that Bosnian Croat politicians still have the legal and constitutional ability to influence and block decisions at virtually every level, and suggest it is difficult to justify that a group accounting for only 15% of the population has equal rights to the other two groups, for legal, technical and practical reasons. That said, others argue that the unequal status of Croats challenges the concept of BiH as a multi-ethnic country.

Bosnian Croat leadership calls for a third entity

This situation-which cannot be easily resolved under BiH's current political and legal framework-has been further complicated by the approach of the leading Bosnian Croat party, the Croatian Democratic Union of BiH (HDZ BiH), and its president, Dragan Covic. Rejecting solutions proposed by international or Bosniak officials aimed at gradually improving the status of Bosnian Croats, the HDZ BiH has instead demanded full equality, and has in recent years insisted that this could only be achieved by a territorial reorganisation of BiH, to put in place an autonomous Croat entity. A self-proclaimed Croat entity operated during the 1990s war in territories under the military control of Croatian and Bosnian Croat armed forces, but eventually merged with Bosniak-held territories to create the Bosniak-Bosnian Croat Federation. The Dayton peace accord joined the Federation with the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska (RS) to establish modern BiH, a federal state divided into the two entities.

A separatist push by Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb leaders

Over the past decade the EU and the US have gradually ended direct intervention in BiH politics. During this time, the Bosniak, Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb leaders returned to maximalist, radical goals similar to those of their wartime predecessors. These include Bosniak leaders' demands for a centralised state, the renewed RS separatist initiatives of that entity's president, Milorad Dodik, and Mr Covic's focus on the creation of a so-called "third entity".

Over the past few years Mr Dodik and Mr Covic have found it politically expedient to co-operate on various initiatives and have moved to eventually support each other's separatist agenda. Bosniak, as well as EU and US, officials strongly oppose the two leaders' efforts, but the influence of the EU and the US has waned following their disengagement from the country. This was shown by the RS referendum held in September 2016 regarding the question of keeping January 9th as a national holiday in the RS, against the ruling of the BiH Constitutional Court, which had declared the referendum illegal and also ruled that the national holiday itself was discriminatory against non-Serb residents of the RS. That said, the Croat push for a third entity has recently been confronted with an unexpected and influential opponent.

The Catholic Church in BiH criticises Bosnian Croat plans

At times seen as a supporter of Croat nationalist goals, the Catholic Church in BiH released a few statements in late December 2016 openly criticising HDZ BiH policies related to the status of Bosnian Croats. In BiH local politicians have reached an all-time low in trust among the population (recently estimated at under 15%). The country's three religious communities, the Islamic community and the Catholic and Orthodox churches, are seen as the most trusted institutions, with over 50% of the population indicating trust in them. In an interview for a BiH television station, TV1, on December 19th the head of the Catholic Church in BiH, Cardinal Vinko Puljic, said that the policies of the Bosnian Croat political leadership could result in the final ethnic cleansing of Croats from some parts of the country. A similar statement was made by the secretary-general of the Catholic Bishop's Conference in BiH, Ivo Tomasevic, in his newspaper column for a Croatian daily, Slobodna Dalmacija. In the article, Mr Tomasevic wrote that the Dayton peace accord was "unjust" because it was used to "legalise ethnic cleansing". The war caused massive population movements, with many Bosnian Serbs moving to the RS, while Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats either left BiH or moved to the Federation. In Mr Tomasevic's view, the establishment of a third entity would only include territory from the Federation and not from the RS, as this has been repeatedly rejected by Mr Dodik, and this would further solidify the consequences of ethnic cleansing. Although both Cardinal Puljic and Mr Tomasevic avoided blaming specific players, their public statements were clearly directed at the HDZ BiH and Mr Covic.

The church's statements might be motivated by what it deems to be an increased risk of Mr Covic and Mr Dodik's closer co-operation regarding separatist goals. In a meeting in December the two men agreed to jointly launch an initiative to remove the three foreign judges from the BiH Constitutional Court. Mr Dodik and Mr Covic have long complained that these judges, together with the two Bosniak judges, can always outvote the two Croat and two Serb judges.

Risks to proposal for a third entity

The creation of a third entity would be likely to result in the transfer of Croats from parts of BiH where they live in territory controlled or surrounded by Bosniaks or Bosnian Serbs. This includes the entire RS and Bosnian Croat pockets in the Federation, such as Vitez and Kiseljak in central BiH, and Zepce and Orasje in northern BiH. Such an outcome would run the risk of inciting ethnic conflict. So far, neither the HDZ BiH nor Mr Covic have reacted to the church's criticism. However, the HDZ BiH may feel under enough pressure to force it to alter its policy and rhetoric. The first test of HDZ BiH's policy course will come later in January as Mr Dodik and Mr Covic launch their initiative for their proposed changes to the Constitutional Court.

Data provided by: