Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia: Old Enemies Share Power in Vukovar

Political necessity forces Croat and Serb nationalist parties to agree to unlikely pact.
By Drago Hedl

Vukovar, devastated by the Yugoslav army in the early Nineties, has become the scene for an unlikely power-sharing agreement between bitter political foes - the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and the Independent Democratic Serbian Party, SDSS.


The town's previous local administration collapsed in April, when the HDZ's coalition partners walked out in protest at the party's dominance. This left it with a difficult choice - call new elections or share power with archenemies, the SDSS. Fearful of losing seats in any new poll, the HDZ opted for the latter.


For Vukovar, where national divisions are deeply entrenched, so much so that a kind of apartheid system exists, this was a remarkable event - especially since the HDZ and SDSS insist on separation between the two peoples.


In the May 2001 local elections the HDZ won ten seats and the SDSS eight. At that time, neither would have countenanced any sort of pact.


The HDZ formed a coalition with the extreme right Croatian Party of Rights, HSP, an open supporter of Croatia's World War Two fascist Ustashe government, and the Democratic Centre, DC, formed by Mate Granic, a close associate of late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, which has much in common with the nationalist HDZ.


Under such a Croat nationalist dominated coalition, Serbs were effectively excluded from local government, in flagrant breach of constitutional regulations passed in October 2000 to protect minority rights.


Under the constitution, national minorities are guaranteed representation at municipal level in "proportion to their number amongst the local population". Serbs make up half of Vukovar's population.


The HDZ and SDSS claim their new power-sharing agreement is in response to these constitutional requirements. But fearful of alienating their respective voters, both are eager to refute any talk of a coalition.


"There is no coalition between the HDZ and the SDSS. Legislation concerning minority rights is only being honoured. The SDSS has been fighting for months to have it implemented," said Branko Sekuljica, the Serb party member and newly elected deputy mayor of Vukovar.


Philip Karaula, HDZ member and president of the Vukovar assembly, was just as keen to point out the constitutional imperatives. " Vukovar is a town with a substantial Serbian minority. They gained a third of overall parliamentary seats at the last election. According to the law, they have the right to participate in the local government."


Prior to the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the ensuing war, Vukovar was one of the country's most developed municipalities. But today quarter of the working population is unemployed.


Local people, be they Croat or Serb, have had enough of warmongering and division. They want a better life.


"It's good they've agreed at last," said Mile Jovanovic, a Serb market trader. "Hopefully, it will be easier for us. Life is difficult in Vukovar. There is no work, no salaries. People can hardly make ends meet."


While reconstruction of the city is going well, the economy is in dire straits. The Borovo factory, for example, which used to employ some 20,000 people in the manufacture of rubber and shoes, now employs only 100. The plant is in ruins and the state cannot afford to rebuild it.


The lack of jobs and opportunity in the city is one of the main reasons why so few displaced Croats have returned. Only 10,000 or so have come home - about half of those who fled. Of the town's 12,000 Serbs, large numbers are pensioners. Many, although registered in the town, actually live in Serbia, returning only to collect their pensions.


Political necessity, and not an awareness of the need for cooperation, has brought about the new power-sharing agreement.


People remain scarred by the war. The destruction and physical suffering wrought by the conflict was horrific and mutual mistrust between the communities remains enormous. Nevertheless, the fact that Croat and Serb politicians now find themselves forced to work together is an encouraging development.


Drago Hedl is an independent Croatian journalist.