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Croatia: Serb Fury Over Census Result

Claims that Serbs now make up only 4 per cent of the population, down from 12 per cent a decade ago, have triggered accusations of foul play
By Dominic Hipkins

A Croatian Serb leader has accused the reformist government of "continuing the effects of ethnic cleansing" after leaked results from the latest census showed a drastic fall in the size of the community.

The contentious statistics on the country's ethnic make-up will not be published until June 18. But the decision of a national newspaper to publish leaked data, which said there were only 176,000 Serbs, 4 per cent of the 4.4 population, has triggered a controversy the authorities would have preferred to avoid.

The last census in 1991, held just before Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, put the size of the Serb minority at 600,000, about 12 per cent of the then total of 4.7 million.

Milorad Pupovac, of the Serb National Council, believes the number of Serbs now living in Croatia is not less than 6 per cent. "Where did 400,000 people go?" he asked angrily.

After the 1995 military offensives against the self-proclaimed Serbian state in Croatia, the Serbian Republic of Krajina, RSK, about 200,000 Serbs either fled their homes or were forced out.

Minority rights legislation, which was passed as pre-condition of international recognition for Croatia in 1991, was dispensed with and 20,000 homes were torched and several hundred Serb civilians killed.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in Zagreb says about half the Serbs who fled have since returned. But that figure does not seem to be reflected in the numbers about to be unveiled next week.

Pupovac accused the National Bureau of Statistics of deliberately underestimating the Serbian community by excluding about 130,000 refugees he said were still listed as living in Serbia.

Officials reached their figures by sending forms to everyone who had resided in Croatia for at least a year. Those who were absent, even if they owned, or occupied property, failed to qualify.

The criteria for inclusion excluded many refugees who had returned within the last year, following the election defeat in 2000 of former president Franjo Tudjman's nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ.

Until the winter 2000 poll, Serb refugees faced serious obstacles to their return. President Tudjman himself boasted that the percentage of Serbs in Croatia had been slashed to 3 per cent.

A more tolerant attitude now exists at an official level, though the only politician to speak out in favour of minority rights remains Tudjman's successor, Stipe Mesic, who made the subject the cornerstone of his address last year on the tenth anniversary of Croatia's independence.

The Social Democrat prime minister, Ivica Racan, though often keen to flaunt his pro-European credentials, seems less worried by Croatia's failure to evolve into a multi-ethnic society. His only comment on the census leak was that there was no reason to lament, "even if the 4 per cent figure was true".

Racan's stance is influenced by that of his more nationalistic Social Liberal coalition partners, who continue to blame the aggression of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army for Croatia's ethnic problems and refuse to admit Croats were also involved in uprooting the minority.

The war between Croatia and the Yugoslav army and its local Serb allies saw the country virtually cut in half in 1991. Almost one-third of the republic's territory was seized by the RSK and half a million Croats were forced out of their homes.

At the same time, Serbs also fled their homes. Some 240,000 were registered as refugees from Croatia by August 1992. Moreover, the homes of thousands of others who stayed behind after independence were destroyed in government-held territory.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has urged Zagreb to compensate those affected, but the issue has been bedeviled by Croatia's insistence that Serbia must first pay war reparations.

In the eastern frontline town of Osijek, volunteer fighters who boasted of dynamiting Serb houses received pensions rather than convictions.

Even in the more liberal atmosphere of Zagreb, the Serb population has fallen by half from its pre-1991 level to about 30,000 and the minority's main lobby group does not dare to display its name-plate outside its office. Only yards away, newspapers glorifying the Second World War fascist Ustashe regime, led by Ante Pavelic, are openly on sale.

The return of Serb refugees has been largely restricted to rural regions. But these war-affected areas, also populated by a sometimes explosive mixture of returning Serbs and Bosnian Croat refugees, are often ruled by nationalists from Tudjman's HDZ.

When a Serb was recently elected mayor of Vojnic, a municipality south of Zagreb in the former RSK, there were angry scenes at his inauguration and a series of unexplained explosions in the town, attributed to Bosnian Croat refugees.

Tension has been fuelled by sensational media reports, claiming that Croats will become a minority in some parts of the country as a result of Serbian re-settlement.

Elderly Serbs who feel vulnerable in isolated villages may feel reluctant to make their ethnic origins public in such a climate. Serbs in mixed marriages may also have registered as Croats to avoid complications, further reducing the census figure. Ethnic status is difficult to conceal in Croatia. Students are obliged to declare their nationality in their school achievement records, for example.

One reason why Croatian Serb leaders insist they make up at least 6 per cent of the population overall is because a 2001 local election law contains a 5 per cent threshold for minority representation on local council administrations. The threshold was criticised by the Council of Europe's advisory Venice Commission as too high.

Serb leaders fear that if this limit is applied at national level, the community will have the same status as the 26,000 strong Italian minority, whose representation at government level is fairly nominal.

Security concerns may de-rail a new round of local government elections in 50 towns and villages, aimed at bolstering the number of minority representatives on municipal councils, which are scheduled to take place this year.

A bill enabling the elections has been pending for two years and needs the support of two-thirds of the members of the parliament to pass.

Some Croatian human rights activists believe arguments over whether ethnic minorities in Croatia should have one or several assembly representatives are a diversion.

Professor Zarko Puhovski, of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, says the creation of a multi-ethnic parliamentary standing committee to oversee all new legislation would be a more effective method of monitoring minority rights in the country, along with new legislation outlawing language that incited racial or ethnic hatred.

Puhovski said criticism of the census missed the point. "People should not smash the mirror because they don't like the image of country which, unfortunately, has solved its Serbian question through irreversible ethnic cleaning," he said.

Dominic Hipkins is a regular IWPR contributor

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