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Balkan Report: April 9, 2005

9 April 2005, Volume 9, Number 11

FORMER YUGOSLAVIA AND POPE JOHN PAUL II. It was only natural that the first Slavic pope attracted particular attention in a country whose name translates as "Land of the South Slavs." He was warmly greeted by Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Slovenes, and Albanians on his visits to the region, but he never fully overcame deeply rooted mistrust by the Orthodox towards him as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

News of the death of Pope John Paul II on 2 April brought a stream of condolences and laudatory messages the following day from across former Yugoslavia. Croatian President Stipe Mesic said in Zagreb that the pope was "a proven friend of Croatia and the Croatian people, and an advocate of our right to freedom and independence and our integration with the European family of peoples," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. "We will cherish forever his visits to Croatia. The messages he left during those visits as a religious leader and statesman have been and will remain a permanent landmark on our path of development," Mesic added.

Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said that the pope was not only the head of the Roman Catholic Church but also "the leading moral authority in today's world."

The pope visited Croatia in 1994, 1998, and 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 5, and 9 June 2003). He stressed the same points as he did on his trips to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Albania, namely the need for forgiveness, reconciliation, spiritual renewal, the protection of life, and promotion of peace. About 87 percent of Croatia's 4.5 million people are at least nominally Roman Catholic, while about 1.3 percent are of Islamic heritage.

The head of the Islamic Community in eastern Croatia's Osijek-Baranja County, Imam Enes Poljic, said on 3 April that "the world has lost its greatest moral authority, the man who worked with great sincerity and dedication to building ties between all religions and religious communities. The Muslims in Osijek had prayed that his suffering be eased and we know that all of us are walking the same path towards the same end."

Mark Sopi, who is the Roman Catholic bishop of Kosova, said in Prishtina on 3 April that Pope John Paul II had shown great interest in solving Kosova's problems and urged dialogue. Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova said that "the news on the death of the holy father, a great pope who dedicated his life to peace, freedom, and mutual understanding, has deeply saddened me." The president also called the pope "a great friend, a father who prayed much for Kosova. We should pay credit to him for the freedom, independence and democracy of Kosova," he added.

Most Kosovar Albanians are Muslims, but there is an influential Roman Catholic minority. Relations between those two religious groups are generally good, partly because most Muslim Kosovar Albanians are aware that their own ancestors were most likely Roman Catholic before converting to Islam under Ottoman rule.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cardinal Vinko Puljic, who is the first cardinal in Bosnia's history, said in Sarajevo on 3 April that Pope John Paul II served as a bridge between religious faiths. "We can rightfully say that he was a great pope, certainly the man of the century and the man who led the Church from one millennium into another," he added.

Borislav Paravac, who is the Serbian member of the Bosnian Presidency and its current chairman, called the pope a true friend of Bosnia and the entire world.

Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, the head of Bosnia's Islamic Community, said that "Pope John Paul II's departure from this world leaves a huge void. It will be difficult to find such a moral figure." The Sarajevo daily "Oslobodjenje" noted that on his 1997 visit to Bosnia, the pope said that "one should be able to ask forgiveness and to forgive."

The pope also visited Bosnia in 2003, when Serbian Orthodox officials gave him a chilly reception in the Republika Srpska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 June 2003). Bosnia's 4 million people are estimated to be about 40 percent Muslim, 31 percent Serbian Orthodox, and 15 percent Roman Catholic.

In Belgrade, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle sent a message on 3 April in his name and that of the church to the Roman Catholic clergy and believers in which he wrote that he shares their grief and hopes that the soul of the pope may rest in peace. Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica also extended their condolences.

Serbia and Montenegro is one of the few countries that Pope John Paul II was unable to visit during his reign, reportedly due to the opposition of the Serbian Orthodox Church (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 June 2003). About 65 percent of the country's 10.8 million people are Orthodox, while only 4 percent are Roman Catholic, mainly in Vojvodina and Montenegro's Kotor Bay region.

The problem in the pope's relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church and many of former Yugoslavia's Orthodox believers stems from the fact that the area is at a crossroads where Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam come together. Interconfessional relations have ebbed and flowed over time but in recent years have seen little of the interfaith dialogue that has characterized relations between religious groups in many Western countries.

Most important, perhaps, is that nationalists of all hues manipulated and exploited religious passions and senses of grievance for their own ends during the wars of the 1990s. Those conflicts -- for which most observers hold former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his supporters chiefly responsible -- were about land, money, and power. Unscrupulous leaders nonetheless had little difficulty in masking their aims by appealing to simple people for their support on religious grounds, particularly with stories about the real or imagined destruction of religious buildings (see "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 15 and 22 July, 7 and 21 October, and 11 November 2004). Serbian propaganda, moreover, stressed that the breakup of Yugoslavia was part of a plot engineered by Germany, Austria -- and the Vatican.

Pope John Paul II distanced himself from extremist positions, as did many other religious leaders in the region, including Roman Catholic Cardinal Franjo Kuharic of Croatia, who died in 2002. Kuharic even strained his relations with President Franjo Tudjman by firmly opposing the 1993-94 Croatian-Muslim conflict in Bosnia, which Tudjman privately backed as a prelude to partitioning that neighboring country. In recent years, in the Bosnian town of Bugojno, the local Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim clerics have taken the lead in bringing their peoples together. When the Serbian Orthodox priest leaves a community meeting early, he gives his proxy vote to the Muslim imam to cast for him, not to one of the Serbian lay leaders.

But the wars have generally left a climate of mutual mistrust among the religious communities, none of which is far removed from nationalist political groups (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 24 September 2004). This situation also affected Pope John Paul's relations with the Orthodox and seems to be the chief reason why the visit to Serbia and Montenegro he hoped for never materialized.

His visit to the Republika Srpska in 2003 highlighted the problem. He paid a brief visit to Banja Luka on 22 June to beatify Ivan Merz, Bosnia's first beatified layman. Speaking to a crowd of over 50,000, the pope called for reconciliation, adding that "from this city, marked in the course of history by so much suffering and bloodshed, I ask almighty God to have mercy on the sins committed against humanity, human dignity, and freedom, also by the children of the [Roman] Catholic Church, and to foster in all the desire for mutual forgiveness. Only in a climate of true reconciliation will the memory of so many innocent victims and their sacrifice not be in vain." His remarks alluded primarily to killings of Orthodox Serbs by pro-Axis Croats during World War II as well as to the ethnic cleansing of Croats and Muslims by Serbs during the 1992-95 conflict.

But even though police quickly took down posters reading "Pope go home," "Vatican experts agreed that this was one of the coolest welcomes" the pope received anywhere, Deutsche Welle noted. No officials of the Serbian Orthodox Church -- except Bishop Jefrem of Banja Luka -- welcomed him, although he had sent a message to Patriarch Pavle. From the onset of his papacy in 1978, the Polish-born pontiff stressed the reconciliation of eastern and western Christians as "two lungs breathing in the same body." In 1979, one of his first foreign trips as pope took him to Istanbul to meet Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I. But except for the Romanian Orthodox Church, many of the Orthodox regarded him with suspicion and gave him a chilly welcome on his visits to Greece and Ukraine. (Patrick Moore)

AFTERSHOCKS OF MACEDONIA'S LOCAL ELECTIONS STILL TO COME. Macedonia's recent local elections were marred by irregularities, and voting in some districts must be repeated. The question still remains as to whether the winners will be up to the challenges presented by their new, expanded powers.

In March, Macedonia went to the poll twice to elect members of the district councils as well as local mayors. The vote -- which was overshadowed by irregularities in both rounds -- was of special importance since it was the first after the government granted the 84 administrative districts plus Skopje far greater responsibilities by decentralizing the state administration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, 23, and 25 March 2005, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 April 2005).

The decentralization was a key provision of the 2001 Ohrid peace accord, which aimed at ending the interethnic conflict between ethnic Albanian insurgents of the National Liberation Army (UCK) and the Macedonian authorities. Among other things, the peace deal promised the country's large ethnic Albanian minority -- which accounts for about one-quarter of the population -- a much greater say in its own affairs. The new district administrations will thus be able to decide on crucial questions such as regional planning, education, and cultural affairs. The districts will also have greater control of their financial affairs (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 July 2004).

The vote is not over yet as the ballot has to be repeated in a number of polling stations. But analysts have already begun asking whether the newly elected mayors will be up to their responsibilities. The transfer of powers from the central to the district level will begin soon with the first meetings of the district councils; it must be finalized by 1 July.

Milan Banov wrote in an editorial for "Dnevnik" of 2 April that he doubts that the newly elected mayors and the new district administrations will be ready to cope with the financial problems of their districts. "I...have the feeling that with the increase of the responsibilities of the mayors and the district councils, the problems will multiply," Banov wrote. He argued that many mayors and councils have failed to cope with more limited responsibilities and duties in the past, which ultimately led to "catastrophic situations" in some districts.

Even some of the newly elected mayors admitted that it will be difficult for them to come to grips with their new responsibilities and duties. Koce Trajanovski of the conservative opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) -- who is the newly elected mayor of the Gazi Baba district in Skopje -- told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters on 31 March that one of his big problems is a simple lack of data. "If you take the case of the Gazi Baba District, there are not enough empirical data," Trajanovski said. "[It is impossible] to say how many companies there are here, or how much VAT there will be.... There are not enough data on any of these. I just cannot say how all this will work."

Kenan Aliu, who is the new mayor of the Zelino District for the ethnic Albanian opposition coalition of the Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters that the biggest problems will come from the decentralization of the financial system. He thinks that what has been set down on paper will not be feasible in practice.

The highly politicized election campaign, which focused on party politics rather than on the issues surrounding the reforms, also gave rise to doubts about whether the political parties are willing to give up their hold on the local administrations, which they tend to run as party fiefs. Pere Aslimovski, who is a professor in the Tourism Department in Ohrid, suggested in "Dnevnik" of 2 April that the central authorities might have given away too many of their powers, particularly in regard to finances. "Will the decentralization of the administration widen the paths to democracy, or will it deepen the [influence of the political parties] on basic social relations?" Aslimovski asked.

Responding to such reports and comments, Minister for Local Self-Government Rizvan Sulejmani told "Utrinski vesnik" of 2 April that the government has drafted a detailed plan of how to transfer responsibilities to the local administrations. He also said that his ministry will provide intensive training for mayors and administrative officials over the next three months.

But Sulejmani also concedes that there may be problems in the practical implementation of the decentralization plans. He warned that the parties should not try to blame the central administration for not preparing the transition when the real problem is that the parties themselves have not found suitable candidates to become mayors. The minister said, however, that the first positive effects of the decentralization should be evident in one or two years. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz,

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK: "We've inherited a number of open issues from the previous government, including some which can't be solved overnight. There have been many ups and downs, Slovenia wasn't to blame to a great extent, but more could have been done in certain areas. The more Croatia adopts European standards the more will our dialogue be held on the same frequencies. We will understand what has been written in the same way and stick to agreements." -- Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, quoted by Hina in Ljubljana on 4 April.