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

Serb Refugees Given Hope

In stark contrast to the Tudjman era, the Croatian government has implemented a series of measures to facilitate the return of Serbian refugees.
By Dragutin Hedl

In a landmark case earlier this month, the Croatian constitutional court ruled a Montenegrin family, which fled the country nine years ago, could reclaim their old home.

The court's decision will bolster Prime Minister Ivica Racan's plan to facilitate the return of around 17,000 Serb refugees.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, estimates some 250,000 Croatian Serb refugees are still registered in Yugoslavia and Republika Srpska. Around 25,000 of them have applied to return to Croatia as part of the government's repatriation programme.

The constitutional court ruling is significant because the judiciary has consistently ruled against returnees, particularly those coming back from Yugoslavia and Republika Srpska, on the grounds that such people had "participated in hostile activity against Croatia."

The legal breakthough comes as the government is pushes new legislation through parliament granting Croats and Serbs the right to rebuild homes destroyed during the war.

Nationalists, in particular radicals within the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, have resisted government moves at every turn.

In an extraordinary admission during a heated exchange with HDZ representatives, the Minister for Reconstruction and Civil Engineering, Radomir Cacic, said he had seen with his own eyes Croatian soldiers burn and destroy Serb homes in Knin in August 1995.

Given arsonists and robbers had operated within the military, Cacic went on, the government had a responsibility to help everyone wanting to rebuild homes destroyed in the war.

Prior to the break-up of Yugoslavia, all properties were state-owned. Tenants enjoyed so-called occupancy rights, which were life-long and inheritable. At the start of the war, Zagreb abolished these rights for anyone who'd left the country - mostly Serbs and Montenegrins.

Meanwhile, the authorities permitted people to buy their own homes - an opportunity denied , of course, by the tens of thousands of non-Croats who fled the country before and during the war.

Racan's government has also introduced a law on minorities, which recognises their languages and guarantees them improved representation in parliament. Should Serbs make up 8 per cent of the next census, they could have 19 out of the 151 legislative seats, which is more than some smaller parties in the governing coalition.

In addition, the government's new budget has reportedly set aside around $3 million for minority affairs, the largest share of which goes to the Serbs.

HDZ radicals have denounced the government's efforts to assist Serb repatriation as an "equalisation of aggressors and victims."

Senior officials in the previous HDZ administration, Vladimir Seks and Drago Krpina, claimed the policies would bring the return of "thousands and thousands of JNA [Yugoslav Peoples Army] officers, who destroyed Croatia and killed its citizens."

HDZ radicals are stirring up opposition to Racan's government, claiming it is little more than a stooge of the international community, implementing polices dictated by the West and detrimental to Croatian interests.

Extremists in the HDZ are not alone. The president of the Veterans and Invalids of the Patriotic War, HVIDRA, Marinko Liovic, has promised to disrupt the coming tourist season in protest at the government's co-operation with war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

On May 17, five Croatian Army soldiers in Veljuna destroyed a memorial to 570 Serbs killed by the fascist Ustashe during World War Two. The government response was swift. The soldiers were suspended from the army and are to face criminal charges. Their superiors are also being investigated.

Racan's government still enjoys the support of the majority of the population, despite the right wing backlash. Many fear radicals like Liovic will plunge Croatia back into international isolation and discourage much needed foreign investment.

Dragutin Hedl is regular IWPR contributor

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