Croats (Bosnia)

Introduction / Definiton: 

The position of the Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina was one of many self-determination issues that emerged from, or contributed to, the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. As such it is inextricably linked to the Yugoslav context and involves a number of players and relationships. The most important relationships are between the Bosnian Croats and 1) the Croatian Government in Zagreb and 2) the two other constituent nations in Bosnia: the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and the Bosnian Serbs.

War broke out in Croatia in the late summer of 1991 and in Bosnia–Herzegovina in April 1992. In the meantime, both republics had been recognized as independent states. According to the 1991 Yugoslav census, Croats constituted 17 percent of Bosnia’s population and they were the smallest of the three constituent nations in the republic. Despite this position of relative demographic weakness, which could have been expected to foster unity once Yugoslavia started unraveling, the Bosnian Croats were deeply divided over what course to pursue: one faction supported Bosnia’s independence while the other demanded unification with Croatia.

The position of the Bosnian Croats was strongly influenced by the newly independent Croatian Government and changes in Zagreb’s policies affected the fortunes of the competing factions. Support from Zagreb benefited the radical faction during the first years of war and demands for partition predominated, but following international pressure on the Croatian Government the alliance with the Bosniaks was stitched back together and Bosnia’s unity was again supported. After the Dayton agreement, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995, demands were made at times for a Croat autonomous entity but without open support from Zagreb, such demands became increasingly marginalized. The dominant Bosnian Croat leaders now support the common state and a political structure which gives them power-sharing at the central level and a high-level of autonomy in Croat-dominated areas. Dissatisfaction, however, remains and although it is unlikely to turn violent, it could lead to further deadlock in a Bosnian system that is already characterized by institutional weakness and immobility.

Historical Evolution: 

The Croatian nationalist movement emerged in Bosnia in August 1990 with the formation of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica Bosne i Hercegovine, HDZBiH). In Croatia, a party of the same name had been created in June 1989 and it went on to win the first Croatian multiparty elections in April-May 1990 and its leader Franjo Tudjman became Croatia’s new President. The links between the two parties were strong and Zagreb often played a very proactive role in the internal politics of the Bosnian HDZ. For example, shortly after the foundation of the HDZBiH, the leader of the party Davor Perinovic was replaced by Stjepan Kljuic; this change in leadership was decided at a meeting in Zagreb (see, for example, Curak 2000).

In its election campaign, the HDZ in Croatia had promised to “restore” Croatian statehood and once elected it set out to pursue this goal. The new Government legitimized its policies by pointing to Croatia’s ‘thousand-year dream’ of independence and adopted symbols from the WWII Independent State of Croatia (NDH). The NDH had been a Nazi-puppet state, but it was Croatia’s only experience of modern independent statehood. The NDH had also encompassed Bosnia, but the Croatian Government refrained from making explicit claims to Bosnian territory. Instead President Tudjman insisted that the Bosnian Croats be guaranteed constituent status in a sovereign Bosnia and in later territorial negotiations requested an autonomous territory for the Bosnian Croats (see, for example, Tanner 2001).

In Bosnia, the HDZ initially adopted a relatively moderate position. In the run-up to the Bosnian elections in November 1990, it advocated a confederal Yugoslavia but also emphasized the importance of inter-ethnic co-operation and its partnership with the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action and the Serb Democratic Party (HDZBiH election program in Prstojevic 1990: 44-5). Following the elections, which were a great triumph for all three nationalist parties, an uneasy partnership was created. Despite tensions, this lasted until October 1991 when the Bosnian Serb deputies walked out from the Bosnian Parliament following the passing of the ‘Declaration on Sovereignty’ (see, for example, Caspersen 2010). The partnership between the Bosnian Croats and the Bosniaks, however, persisted and the HDZ supported the Bosnian independence referendum on 29 February and 1 March 1992.

Underlying this alliance and the support for Bosnian independence were, however, two different factions. One faction supported an independent multiethnic Bosnia while the other faction saw this as a stepping stone to unification with Croatia. This division can be seen as one between Bosnian Croats, who emphasized not only their Croat but also their Bosnian identity, and Croats who emphasized their separate identity and supported the ethnic partitioning of Bosnia. These two factions overlapped with geographical divisions: Croats residing in central and northern Bosnia lived, for the most part, inter-mixed with the two other communities and they were more prone to supporting an independent Bosnia. Croats in Western Herzegovina, on the other hand, were more closely linked with neighboring Croatia, they lived in more ethnically homogeneous areas, and they tended to support more radical policies. The Herzegovina Croats constituted around 1/3 of Bosnia’s Croat population (Silber and Little 1995: 293).

The pro-Bosnia faction initially predominated but the more radical challengers within the HDZBiH received substantial support from Zagreb. This backing and the increasing intensity of the conflict eventually resulted in a change in the party leadership when Mate Boban, a hard-line Herzegovin leader, replaced Kljuic as party leader (see, Woodward 1995: 194). The radical faction gained effective control of the party in late 1991 and proclaimed the ‘Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna’ as an economically and politically autonomous entity. Autonomy was, however, not the actual goal: the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has concluded that the intention was to secede from Bosnia and become part of a ‘Greater Croatia’ (ICTY 2001: 155). The de facto independent entity therefore adopted the Croatian currency, state symbol and educational curriculum, and it moreover implemented a policy of persecution against the Bosniak population, even though the Croats and the Bosniaks formally were partners (see, for example, Silber and Little 1995: 293. Woodward 1995: 231. Bullough 2007).

The HDZ therefore came to follow a dual strategy: officially it was still aligned with the Bosniak leadership, but unofficially it held talks with the Serbs over a potential division of Bosnia into a Serb and a Croat part, and a small Bosnian Muslim part. To Tudjman this represented a compromise position since he, like many nationalist Croats, shared the belief that the “Muslim population [was] overwhelmingly of Croatian origin.” (1982: 140). These negotiations ultimately failed since there was no agreement over who would control the town of Mostar. In the spring of 1993, the tactical alliance with the Bosniaks broke down and all-out war broke out between the armed forces of Herceg-Bosna and the Bosnian army.

However, significant international pressure was exerted on Zagreb. Croatia was heavily involved in the Bosnian war but this involvement began to jeopardize its much-needed international support; Zagreb relied on international backing if it were to reassert its authority over Serb-controlled areas in Croatia. At the same time, Tudjman was facing some internal criticism over Croatia’s role in Bosnia and over the resulting deterioration in its international image. Consequently, Zagreb reduced its support for the position of the Bosnian Croat leadership and in March 1994 the Washington Agreement on a Bosniak-Croat Federation was signed (Silber and Little, 1995: 320-3).[1] This agreement was deeply unpopular with much of the Bosnian Croat leadership and most of its provisions were left unimplemented, but it stopped the bloodshed and the renewed military alliance, backed by international support, gradually translated into victories on the battlefield.

The Bosnian war finally ended when the Dayton Agreement was signed in December 1995. In the negotiations, the Bosnian Croats were represented by the Croatian President and by Croat representatives in the Bosnian delegation (see, Holbrooke 1999). Although, Tudjman represented the majority position, a small minority of Bosnian Croats still supported an independent Bosnian state rather than allegiance to Zagreb. At Dayton, the Bosniak-Croat Federation was reaffirmed: the Croats abandoned their separate entity, Herceg-Bosnia, at least for the foreseeable period, and the Bosniaks agreed to equal representation and to devolution of power.

[1] The agreement is available from

Resolution / Status: 

The Dayton Peace Agreement created a complex political structure with three constituent nations, two powerful entities - a Serb entity and the Bosniak-Croat entity - and power-sharing on many levels of government. The agreement also included a civilian international administration, the Office of the High Representative, and a NATO military presence which would ensure the implementation of the agreement. The agreement guaranteed the Bosnian Croats one member in the three-person presidency and also equal representation in the upper house of Parliament which provided for a veto over ‘vital national interests’. Moreover, in the Bosniak-Croat entity (The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) power is internally devolved and ten cantons enjoy significant autonomy: three of these are predominantly Croat while two are mixed. A number of power-sharing mechanisms are built into the entity’s structure: the upper chamber of the legislature is based on parity and concurrent majorities are required for issues involving vital national interests. Finally, the entities are allowed to establish ‘special parallel relationships’ with neighboring states, i.e. with Croatia and with Yugoslavia (The General Framework Agreement 1995). Consequently, the Dayton Agreement guaranteed the Bosnian Croats a significant share in power and permitted continued links with Zagreb. However, it fell short of providing the Croats with their own entity.

But the reality of post-war Bosnia differed in important respects: although ‘Herceg-Bosna’ had officially ceased to exist in 1994, when the Washington Agreement was signed, a de facto Croat entity continued to exist. Parallel institutions had never been dismantled and they were generously funded by Zagreb and by the shadow economy. Bosnian Croat politics was still entirely dominated by the HDZ which pursued a policy of obstructing the implementation of the Dayton Agreement; in particular regarding the reintegration of the city of Mostar. Relations with Zagreb were characterized by mutual dependence: Zagreb continued supporting the Bosnian Croat leadership through direct payment of benefits and salaries, but President Tudjman also needed the support of the Herzegovina Croats who still voted in Croatian elections (see, for example, Bose 2002).

However, things began to unravel with the death of Tudjman in 1999 and the coming to power of a non-HDZ Croatian Government in 2000 (ibid. 142ff). The international High Representative saw this as a chance to adopt a more assertive policy against the ‘third entity’ and growing tensions soon escalated into a full-blown crisis. The HDZ had been left marginalized at the state-level when in early 2001 the ‘Alliance for Change’ formed a new non-nationalist Bosnian government. This setback did, however, not lead the HDZ to adopt a more accommodative position. On the contrary, the leadership decided to play on widespread insecurity among the Bosnian Croats to try to halt the erosion of its power. Such a strategy was aided by an ill-advised change to the electoral law, imposed by the High Representative, which could be seen as undercutting the Croat representation in the Federation House of Peoples. On 3 March 2001, the HDZ-led Croat National Congress (HNS) announced its decision to separate from the Bosniak-Croat Federation and establish “Croat self-government,” and justified this by arguing that the international community threatened the rights and survival of the Bosnian Croats (International Crisis Group 2001). As a response, the Office of the High Representative decided to cut off the illegal monetary flows that were believed to support the HDZ, and their parallel institutions, by raiding the Hercegovačka Banka and imposing a provisional administration. Already weakened by the loss of support from Croatia, the HDZ eventually gave in and embarked on a process of reform.
The process of reform has, nevertheless, been accompanied by significant tensions within the HDZ. When the new leadership abandoned demands for a ‘third entity’ and embarked on a more moderate course, some hardliners chose to leave the party. But the leadership continued its conversion: it spoke warmly of a common state, of strengthened central institutions and of weakened entities, and even supported constitutional amendments which moved away from parity between the three nations, the so-called ‘April package’. This, however, proved too much for traditionalists in the party who argued that such a change would weaken the position of the Bosnian Croats. As a response they broke away from the party in April 2006 and formed the ‘HDZ 1990’, and the Bosnian parliament was unable to pass the constitutional amendments (International Crisis Group 2007). The more uncompromising position of the ‘HDZ 1990’ found some resonance with the Bosnian Croat electorate, but the split also introduced a healthy, and hitherto lacking, political pluralism into Bosnian Croat politics.

The Bosnian Croats are no longer seen as a significant threat to Bosnian stability. But underlying their quiet support for compromise at the state level is a lingering dissatisfaction with their position, and relations at entity and cantonal levels are often marked by frictions and clashes (International Crisis Group 2009a). These are unlikely to turn violent (International Crisis Group 2009b), but they do reflect a Croat sense of unfairness along with attempts to secure separate institutions and hold on to existing powers. Even after the dismantling of the parallel structures, the Croat-dominated regions continued to function as a largely autonomous area with close links to Croatia proper, and the Croatian leaders are afraid of losing this. The fear of being dominated by the two larger communities is reinforced by their weakening demographic position: the Croat share of the population is estimated to have declined markedly from its pre-war levels and the Catholic Church even argues that the Bosnian Croat population has fallen to only 466,000, from 820,000 in 1995 (ibid.). A large number of people have emigrated to Croatia proper and in the border regions many people live with “one foot in Bosnia and the other in Croatia,” crossing the border in order to work, socialize, receive medical care or other benefits (International Crisis Group 2009a). With the announcement of the forthcoming closure of the Office of the High Representative these issues gained added urgency: what kind of Bosnia will the international administration leave behind and what will be position of the Croats in the future Bosnian state.[1]

The case of the Bosnian Croats demonstrates that power-sharing and autonomy can provide relatively stable solutions to self-determination disputes. However, it also highlights the flexibility of demands and the crucial significance of internal divisions: the Bosnian Croats were, and are, divided not only over the most appropriate strategy to pursue but also over what it means to be a Croat in Bosnia. Different factions dominated at different times and these changes in the dynamics of Bosnian Croat politics greatly influenced the range of feasible solutions. A crucial factor for these internal developments was the position of the kin-state, Croatia, and the overall availability of resources which could help sustain a maximalist position. The position of the kin-state greatly impacted on the demands made and the stability of the post-war power-sharing structure. Finally, the case highlights the potential advantage of an ambiguous and flexible settlement that has allowed the Croats greater autonomy in practice than on paper. This has helped mitigate any new conflicts and subdued any violent nationalism. However, it also adds to anxieties over changes to the structure, especially at a time when the international community is getting ready to leave.

[1] The Office of the High Representative was intended to close in June 2008, but the closure has been postponed until a set of benchmarks have been met.

Prospects / Analysis: 

There appears to be little risk of renewed violent conflict, even once the international overseers leave. This is due to the demographic weakness of the Bosnian Croats, the lack of resources for maximalist policies, the beginning emergence of political pluralism and the moderation of the Bosnian Croat political scene. However, this is to a large extent still based on lack of support from Zagreb for more radical positions rather than on genuine commitment to a common Bosnian state. On the upside Croatia’s policy of non-interference appears to be stable: the return of an HDZ-led Government in Croatia in 2003 did not bring about a marked change in Zagreb’s policy and the hope of EU accession seems to work as an effective constraint on less moderate inclinations. Even so, dissatisfaction remains and although this is not likely to lead to secessionist attempts, local tensions could add to the current Bosnian stalemate and institutional weakness. Some observers had feared that the recognition of Kosovo could lead to a resurgence of Croat demands for separation. This did not happen, but the situation in Mostar has once again become deadlocked, which demonstrates that the goal of territorial autonomy remains intact, and any attempts to reform the Bosnian structure in a way which could be seen to undermine this autonomy will come up against significant resistance (International Crisis Group 2009b).

References / Further Reading: 

Bose, S, 2002. Bosnia after Dayton, London: Hurst.

Bullough, O. 2007. “Transcripts Suggest Croatia Conspired to Break Up Bosnia,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 7 November.

Caspersen, N. 2010. Contested Nationalism, Oxford: Berghahn.

Curak, N. 2000. “Long Journey Home,” Dani, 4 February. From

Holbrooke, R. 1999. To End a War, New York: Modern Library.

ICTY, 2001. “Judgement: Kordic & Cerkez (IT-95-14/2), 26 February.

International Crisis Group, 2001. Turning Strife to Advantage, 15 March

International Crisis Group, 2007. Ensuring Bosnia’s Future, 15 February.

International Crisis Group, 2009a. Bosnia’s Incomplete transition, 9 March.

International Crisis Group, 2009b. Bosnia: A Test of Political Maturity in Mostar, 27 July.

Prstojević, M. 1990. BiH Izbori [Bosnia-Herzegovina Elections], Sarajevo: Oslobodenje public.

Silber, L. and A. Little, 1995. The Death of Yugoslavia, London: Penguin.

Tanner, M. 2001. Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, New Haven: Yale University Press.

The General Framework Agreement (The Dayton Agreement), 1995. From

Tudjman, F. 1982. Nacionalno pitanje u suvremenoj Evropi [National Question in Contemporary Europe], Munchen-Barcelona: Knjizica Hrvatske Revije.

Woodward, S. 1995. Balkan Tragedy, Washington DC: Brookings Institution.