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Boycotts or no, Croats’ party suffers from malaise

September 12, 1997

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ The party with the most to lose in this weekend’s local elections has made its task harder _ abandoning its boycott threat at the last minute after delivering anti-election tirades for three days straight.

International officials think the Croatian Democratic Union’s flip-flop might boomerang _ that its voters may not get the word to vote in time, or that they might resent being jerked around.

One voter, 60-year-old Danilo, said he still would vote for the party. But he expressed ambivalence, hinting at a growing malaise among Croatian voters.

``Until the nationalist parties leave the scene, there is no democracy and no chance for change,″ said the pensioner, who refused to give his last name.

Bosnian Croat nationalists had hoped Mostar would be the capital of their own state _ and they’ve managed to prevent the city, divided into Croat- and Muslim-controlled halves, from being knitted together again.

The Croatian Democratic Union has blocked amendments to the county statute meant to restore a multiethnic character, including provisions for an ethnically mixed central zone and an ethnic balance in the highest levels of local and county government.

The party has effectively folded the three district councils in Croat-controlled west Mostar into one, concentrating Croat power and establishing exclusively Croat departments of urban planning, economy and health.

Finally, the party has kept Muslim and Serb refugees from returning to west Mostar, blocking the county council’s acceptance of rules that would allow displaced people to reclaim their prewar homes.

These policies have led to the Bosnian Croats’ international isolation _ which in turn has turned off voters like Danilo.

``I wish it were like before the war, when no one asked `who are you?,‴ he said.

The Croats are in a tight spot _ ``victims of their military success,″ said a Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. During the 3 1/2-year Bosnian war, they won control of about one-quarter of the country. Yet they represent only about 17 percent of the population.

In these elections, where voter rolls are based on prewar addresses, the Croats stand to lose their political dominance in several districts _ places like Drvar, an empty shell of a town where 50,000 Serbs are clamoring to return.

Then there’s Mostar, the battered symbol of the Croats’ nationalist struggle, where the central district could vote in Muslim candidates and tip the scales in the city council.

International election organizers have tried to make a trade: In return for the Democratic Union’s doing away with separatist policies in the Mostar region, the organizers said they would accede to the party’s demand to withhold political representation from Mostar’s ethnically mixed, internationally administered central district.

But the Croats resisted.

``They don’t want to accept that the war wasn’t worth it,″ said Frederike Seidel, press officer for the Mostar regional official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the group responsible for organizing the weekend ballot.

On Tuesday, the HDZ announced it wouldn’t take part in the vote _ only to drop the boycott late Thursday, after hours of talks between Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and international envoys. The OSCE isn’t saying what concessions it has made to get the HDZ’s participation _ but there was no sign the party would budge on its separatist agenda.

Muslim leaders were angered by the last-minute compromise. They called on their supporters in Mostar not to vote Saturday, said Safet Orucevic, mayor of the eastern, Muslim half of Mostar.

They are hoping to force international officials to compel the HDZ in turn to meet its end of the election bargain: accept legislation restoring multiethnic representation in a special session of the county council on Saturday, dissolve the Croats’ parallel local government departments, and allow refugees to return.