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Mate Boban 1940-1997: Karadzic's 'brother in Christ'

by Miljenko Jergovic

Quite exceptionally, death comes at the right time. But when that happens, doubts always arise. After all, from the viewpoint of the Croatian regime Mate Boban could not have died at a better moment, since at The Hague of late his name has been being mentioned more frequently than that of General Blaskic himself, while in Western media and diplomatic circles Boban is quite regularly referred to as a key link connecting Ahmici, Dretelj or Stolac with Zagreb.

Nevertheless, his death has not made much of a splash in the world at large. Only two television stations, those of Zagreb and Pale, have accorded particular significance to it, accompanying the bare news with obituary honours of the kind reserved for a select few. Zagreb's Motrista programme claimed that Mate Boban 'devoted his whole life to the wellbeing of the Croat people in Bosnia- Herzegovina', while still greater respect was paid to the departed on the main TV news of the Bosnian Serbs: 'One of the great warriors against the expansion of Islam in Europe has died!'

The most striking thing about the terms in which the authorities in Pale bid farewell to their former political partner, however, was not that they should have been addressed to a Croat, but the status they accorded him as an eminent European, albeit one of those who at the end of the twentieth century wage crusades against Turkish immigrants in Solingen, kill Arab students in the Paris metro or organize demonstrations against the building of mosques in Rome.

For it is strange to think of Mate Boban in a wider European or cosmopolitan context. Although during his time in power he travelled round half of Europe, from Lisbon, Geneva and Graz to London - provoking the revulsion of people from all parts of the world, from a Roy Gutman or a Tadeusz Mazowiecki to a James Baker or an Alois Mock - Boban always behaved as though his favourite journey was the one from Sovic to Imotski.

Mate Boban was born in 1940 at Sovic, a hamlet near Grude that at the time did not even have a church, so that Mate had to be christened in the larger and more important neighbouring village of Drinovci. After World War II, the inhabitants of Drinovci were stigmatized for having participated in the Ustasha movement. Grude became the regional centre, thus beginning a series of social events that were to help the young Boban and make his biography different from that of all those Herzegovinians who left for a better life in Germany, fleeing poverty, communism or their fathers' sins.

Boban became a member of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia as early as 1958, helped by the fact that his immediate family background was not an Ustasha one. His fellow students hardly recall him today, for he was an average, unambitious sort of person, in his grey suit with the obligatory party button pinned to his lapel.

Mate Boban graduated at a time when communist policy towards western Herzegovina was going through a rapid modification at both republican and federal levels. After twenty years of systematic repression of an area and population seen as tainted with ustashism, when the main local officials would be imported from Sarajevo, Bosnian party leader Dzemal Bijedic abruptly announced that he was ashamed of the way the community had neglected the province and treated its people; many politicians of the day - Vaso Gacic, Cvijetin Mijatovic, Rato Dugonjic, later Branko Mikulic and Hamdija Pozderac - then followed his cue with fiery pro- Herzegovinian speeches.

After 1966 the western Herzegovinians became masters in their own house, but this did not lead to political liberalization and an end to the pursuit of ghosts from the past. The change, in other words, meant little more than that local Croats started to vie with each other in loyalty to the regime that had just embraced them and in harshness meted out to enemies. Most of the people who in 1992 were to become Boban's first collaborators belonged precisely to this generation and outlook. Thus Vlado Soljic was party secretary in Siroki Brijeg, Velentin Coric in Citluk, And Pero Markovic in Capljina. Boban's deputy minister of police Branko Kvesic for a long while was an investigating judge in Mostar notable for his zeal in pursuing kids who sang ustasha songs.

The 'Herzeg-Bosna' minister of police Bruno Stojic had a similar biography, while Jadranko Prlic was vice-president of the last communist government of Bosnia- Herzegovina. Apart from the fact that they were successful socialist activists, such people were helped up the social ladder and given perks by the regime because, in Sarajevo, righting the injustices done to western Herzegovina had already become a matter of political correctness.

In 1966 Mate Boban became director of the Napredak publishing company in Imotski. In the course of the following twenty-odd years he was to be local party secretary, representative of Tvornica duhana Zagreb - and for a short time also a jailbird. His political colleagues concocted the story in 1992 that he had gone to prison for nationalism, indeed for a visit to Pavelic's grave in Madrid. People from Boban's home village, however, swear that he had never even been to Spain, but had ended up behind bars in connection with the unexplained fate of a truck-trailer full of sugar that had vanished somewhere between Split and Imotski. Others talk darkly of property loans. But the essence of the story is the same: Mate Boban was not a nationalist until such time as the price of nationalism rose on the market. As for his trial, that was soon suspended and Boban set free.

In the summer of 1990, when it was clear that communism's day was drawing to a close, Boban was quick off the mark in the new business of politics, collecting a few friends and founding a party: the Herzegovinian Democratic Union (HDZ). However, this soon turned out to be a miscalculation, when a different and more effective organization was established in Sarajevo. Boban promptly switched horses, joined the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ-BiH) and became one of its deputies to the B-H parliament.

Once again luck smiled on Boban. When Franjo Tudjman ordered the colourful neo-ustasha Davor Perinovic to be replaced as party president by Stjepan Kljuic, Boban was appointed vice-president. Kljuic himself was the strongest supporter of Boban's candidacy, perhaps calculating that this quiet and seemingly colourless official from Grude, who had even resisted having his name put forward, would be no rival; and that he himself might escape Perinovic's fate if Tudjman had no serious alternative. But in this Kljuic made a serious error of judgement.

At the end of 1991 Tudjman judged that Kljuic had ceased to be obedient and would not go along with what he and Milosevic had agreed at Karadjordjevo: the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the territorial expansion of Croatia to the frontiers of the 1939 Banovina. So a campaign of denunciation was launched from western Herzegovina against the man who had previously been Tudjman's protege as president of HDZ-BiH, and Vlado Santic, Iko Stanic and Ignjac Kostroman were sent to Sarajevo to destroy Kljuic's standing in the capital, while emissaries travelled the length and breadth of the country spreading the news among the Croat population of how Stjepan Kljuic had become a traitor to the Croat people. A tremendous underground PR operation was put in hand, after which Croat Bosnia 'fell with a whisper', never to defy Zagreb again. The actual technical implementation of Stjepan Kljuic's political liquidation took place at an HDZ-BiH conference at Siroki Brijeg, where almost everyone he had himself put in place now turned on him with insults, abuse and threats.

Mate Boban took over as the new president of the party, whether because he had been most vociferous in the attacks on Kljuic, because he was already vice- president, or because he found most favour with Tudjman. At all events, his appointment marked the beginning of a period when Croat relations with the Bosniaks cooled, whereas a progressive reconciliation was effected with Karadzic's Serbs. Although this clearly did not represent any personal initiative on Boban's part, since he was simply carrying out a policy crafted in Zagreb, it is a matter of record that Mate Boban was the author of some of the most appallingly racist and chauvinist statements about Islam and Muslims to be made since the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Pretty well everything is known about Boban's presidency of 'Herzeg-Bosna'. If the HDZ is to be believed, Boban protected and saved the Croats of Bosnia- Herzegovina; but if the rest of the world is to be believed, he ruled over a para-state where there were concentration camps, where a policy of apartheid was implemented, and where a thoroughgoing 'ethnic cleansing' of Bosniaks was carried out. The war against Karadzic's Serbs was very speedily and efficiently brought to an end and replaced by collaboration, so that all available forces, including at the emotional and spiritual level, could be mobilized for the struggle against Islam.

After Mate Boban had done his work, there was scarcely a HDZ member left in Bosnia-Herzegovina who did not see the Muslims as his enemies for all time. Boban himself once said: 'We are bound to the Serbs by brotherhood in Christ, but nothing at all binds us to the Muslims except the fact that for five centuries they violated our mothers and sisters.'

Boban's loyalty and obedience were limitless. He considered Tudjman the only person beyond question in Croatian history. He told me that in June 1993, when we were talking in his presidential office in the bolt factory (actually a branch of the Zenica steelworks) at Grude. 'The only things beyond doubt are the national interest and what President Tudjman says', he answered, when I told him I thought the war with the Bosniaks was undoubtedly leading the Croats to catastrophe. You could discuss anything with Mate Boban except what Tudjman had once pronounced upon. It was a psychologically strange situation for an interlocutor and quite insoluble. For if you expressed any opinion differing from Tudjman's, it would not make Boban display anger or any other emotion, or provoke him to argue back; instead you would simply find yourself up against a wall of silence.

As I left his office, for the first time quite convinced that the war with the Bosniaks depended neither on the Bosnian nor on the Herzegovinian Croats, I noticed the name written on a plaque in the middle of his door. It was the name of the former director of the factory. Although the president of something that called itself a state now sat here, nobody had taken a screwdriver, unscrewed a couple of screws and changed the name plaque. As if they expected the former director to come back and sit down at his desk again. Both the director's names, moreover, were Muslim.

Mate Boban was ousted after the Croat-Bosniak war had engulfed what little of Bosnia-Herzegovina had been preserved, and after the Americans made it crystal clear that they had no intention of making peace with that particular individual. With iron discipline, amid applause and a few tears, Mate Boban awaited his dismissal at Livno. He never reproached Tudjman in any way, even though he admitted to feeling betrayed and abandoned. For a time he lived in Zagreb's Hotel Intercontinental, worked as a director of INA, took an interest in football and volleyball clubs, and helped his former collaborators. He left Zagreb when the war in former Yugoslavia began to shift to The Hague.

Boban's career might have remained on the margins of our recent history, and he might have been remembered only as a grey, obedient servant, if it had not been for the episode with the Catholic Church. For it is still not entirely clear whether his clash with Archbishops Puljic and Kuharic was inspired from Pantovcak [Tudjman's office] or whether, in this instance, Boban did indeed exceed his authority. It all began in 1992, i.e. before the start of the war against the Bosniaks, when Boban sent a letter to Vinko Puljic, Archbishop of Bosnia, in which he requested him to organize the emigration of Bosnian Croats to parts of the country where, according to the plan, they would form a majority.

This was soon followed by another letter in which Boban proposed and requested that the seat of the archbishopric should be moved from Sarajevo to Travnik. These recommendations received no positive response, nor could they do so; for not only were there no real reasons for such a removal, there was as yet not even a technical-tactical alibi for anything of the sort. What ensued was an extraordinarily insulting campaign, both in Herzegovina and in the regime press in Zagreb, in which Puljic was branded a traitor and 'Alija's archbishop'. Cardinal Puljic himself never forgave Boban for this.

The affair became still more dramatic when Boban dispatched his notorious letter to Cardinal Kuharic. The tone in which he addressed him and the proclamatory style in which the letter was written indicated that a deep gulf had opened between the Church and a significant section of the Catholic population. Indeed the fact that Boban sent the letter (although he probably did not write it), and that Tudjman did not take up a negative position towards it, confirmed the fact that the interests of the Church and the national movement had definitively diverged. The Croat Church leaders found the civilizational and religious conflict on which Boban insisted - in the war as in his letter - intolerable and unacceptable.

On the morning when the news of Boban's death was announced, Voice of America speculated that he might have been killed. The Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz voiced similar suspicions. But such rumours were soon quelled. Sometimes death can come to a person in a quite banal fashion, as he plays with his grandchildren. Just like in that film by Francis Ford Coppola.