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New Croatian Government Offers Hope to Serb Exiles

Croatia's new prime minister and presidential candidates have signalled better days ahead for Croatian Serbs.
By Dragutin Hedl

The new Croatian government has indicated that it will sanction the repatriation of Serbs who fled the country during the re-conquest of the Krajina region five years ago.


Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan, speaking shortly after his election victory, said the government would enable the unconditional return of all Serbs who left Croatia in 1995.


The move reflects a radical shake-up in government policy. Officially the outgoing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) government of late President Franjo Tudjman accepted the right of Serbian refugees to return to their former homes. But in reality the government did everything possible to obstruct repatriation.


Displaced Serbs experienced difficulty in obtaining the necessary paperwork to permit their return. For example, some refugees received relevant documents for only some of their families making their return next to impossible.


Returnees received no help from the state to rebuild or reoccupy their houses. Many returned to find a Croatian refugee from Bosnia or Kosovo living in their homes.


Furthermore, the Croatian media ran campaigns against the return of Serbs. Intimidation and violence towards Serb returnees was common and officially tolerated. Houses were bombed, anonymous threats were made and some were murdered.


The new government is aware that only by fulfilling conditions set by the European Union - the return of Serbian refugees is a key demand - can the country end the international isolation synonymous with the Tudjman era.


Tudjman's successor will be chosen by a second round ballot on February 7 to be contested by the two first round winners - Stipe Mesic and Drazen Budisa.


Mesic is the candidate of the so-called "Opposition Four", a coalition combining the Croatian Peasants Party, the Croatian Peoples Party, the Liberal Party and the Istrian Democratic Assembly). He is the most likely winner having secured 41 per cent in the first round ballot. Budisa - candidate of the Socialist-Liberal coalition, which triumphed in the January 3 parliamentary elections - won 27.4 per cent.


Political analysts in Croatia predict that overall victory in the February 7 ballot will hinge on how supporters of defeated HDZ candidate, Mate Granic, decide to vote.


Both Mesic and Budisa have touched on the issue of Croatian Serb returnees, but neither has elaborated clear policies, fearful of alienating nationalist votes.


Tens of thousands of Serbs were expelled from Croatia following two major military campaigns by its army - "Lightening" and "Storm" - in May and August 1995, respectively, during which parts of country that had been under the control of Serb rebels were recaptured. An estimated 200,000 Serbs fled the country.


According to Serb sources in the Podunavlje region alone 77,316 Serbs have left since 1996. Most moved to Yugoslavia and Republika Srpska, while some traveled to Canada and Western Europe.


Tudjman boasted several times that he had succeeded in "solving the Serbian question in Croatia."


The removal of the HDZ from government at the parliamentary and presidential level - and the defeat of the nationalism that party represented and exploited at the ballot box - has offered a glimmer of hope for Serb returnees.


Dragutin Hedl is a regular correspondent for IWPR.


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