Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Croats speak Croatian and are mainly Roman Catholic. Making up an estimated 14 per cent of the population, they live predominantly in the Hercegovinian south-west of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Although there are still other areas of Croat concentration in central and the northern Posavina areas of Bosnia, the war led to greater migration to Hercegovina, and emigration to Croatia.
Slavs entered the region in the sixth and seventh centuries, displacing Latin-speaking Christians. Over the following centuries, many were converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries. The 11th century schism in Christianity also divided the Christians of Bosnia and Hercegovina. In the fifteenth century, Bosnia and the neighbouring duchy of Hercegovina were incorporated in the Ottoman Empire, and a sizeable portion of the population subsequently adopted Islam. Catholic Slavs increasingly identified themselves as Croats.
During World War II many Croats supported the Ustase Nazi puppet regime of Ante Pavelic, although others fought with Tito’s partisans. (Tito himself was half Croat.) In the aftermath of the war, the new government exacted horrific retribution on ethnic Croat civilians, along with former Ustase fighters. With the rise of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in the late 1980s, Croatian nationalists under Franjo Tudjman took power in Zagreb. Following the outbreak of war in Croatia in 1991 and even ahead of Bosnia and Hercegovina’s declaration of independence in 1992, Tudjman and his party hoped to annex the majority-Croat areas of the vulnerable multi-ethnic state. Indeed, in March 1991 Tudjman and Milosevic met to negotiate the partition of Bosnia and Hercegovina between them. From 1993, Bosnian Croat forces backed by Zagreb openly fought with the army of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Most contested was the divided city of Mostar. Meanwhile, Croats in areas under Serb control faced ‘ethnic cleansing’ along with Bosniaks. Catholic churches in RS were blown up and shelled. An agreement thrashed out in Washington in 1994 put a tenuous end to the Croat-Bosniak war and forged an army coalition to fight rapidly advancing Serb forces. In 1995, NATO intervention and a joint Bosnian-Croatian ground offensive brought Serb leaders to the negotiating table in Dayton.
After Dayton, many Croats complained of unequal treatment because the Serbs had their own entity, and they were forced to live in the majority-Bosniak Federation entity. International authorities in Bosnia and Hercegovina at several points have stepped in to prevent the formation of a separatist Croat ‘Herceg-Bosna’ entity. In recent years, radical nationalism has retreated in Zagreb and support for Bosnian Croat separatists has waned, even as criminal investigations have revealed that some leaders in the movement for ‘Herceg-Bosna’ have been involved extensively in organized crime.
Croat returnees to majority Bosniak and Serb areas of the RS and Federation entities continue to face discrimination in employment. RS authorities have created administrative roadblocks to the reconstruction of Catholic churches in the entity, and churches in majority Serb and Bosniak areas have been targeted by vandals even after the war.
Updated June 2015