A Half-Hearted Welcome: Refugee Return to Croatia
A Half-Hearted Welcome: Refugee Return to Croatia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Change in the Offing: The Shifting Political Scene in Croatia
Change in the Offing: The Shifting Political Scene in Croatia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 138 / Europe & Central Asia

A Half-Hearted Welcome: Refugee Return to Croatia

Seven years after the end of the war, the issue of refugee return continues to be contentious for Croatia.

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Seven years after the end of the war, the issue of refugee return continues to be contentious for Croatia. The government that came to power following parliamentary and presidential elections in January and February 2000 inherited an unsatisfactory legacy of discriminatory laws and practices from its predecessor, to the detriment in particular of ethnic Serb displaced persons and refugees. It found that once the universal international relief that greeted its victory over the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) had worn off, international pressure to remove obstacles to refugee return and reintegration had not ended.

That sustained pressure is first of all on human rights grounds but it also reflects concern for regional stability. As a signatory of the Dayton Peace Accord for Bosnia, Croatia committed itself to promoting return throughout the region. While the right to return should be unconditional for all, there are clear practical linkages between return to and within different countries in the region. As Croatian Serb occupants are evicted from homes belonging to Bosniacs or Bosnian Croats in Bosnia, their own right to return is hampered if their homes in Croatia are occupied by other refugees. Further, the prospects for normal, stable relations among the states in the region, as well as among different ethnic groups within those states, will be much set back if the wounds caused by wartime ethnic cleansing are not healed.

While most ethnic-Croats displaced by the conflict in Croatia have returned, less than one-third of the more than 300,000 Croatian Serbs displaced during the conflict have returned. A 1998 government Return Program failed to establish adequate conditions. The effects of discriminatory laws and practices put in place during and after the war continued to prevent them from exercising their rights in key areas.

Ethnic-Serbs have faced discrimination as regards citizenship and residency rights, property and occupancy rights and reconstruction assistance for wartime damage. In Croatia's difficult economic climate, Serbs are particularly disadvantaged by widespread employer discrimination, including in the public sector. Inconsistency in the authorities' approach to war crimes prosecutions and the amnesty for people who engaged in armed rebellion against Croatia has been a further disincentive. While many ethnic-Serbs have, especially prior to 2000, been prosecuted in a politicised environment, with sometimes dubious verdicts, treatment of ethnic Croats has been generally lenient and war crimes cases against them rare.

The more positive attitude of the current Croatian government helped improve the overall climate for Serb return. The security situation is considerably better in most areas. However, the government was slow to end discriminatory practices in property repossession, occupancy rights and reconstruction assistance. A series of initiatives in 2001-2002 superseded the 1998 Return Program, including an Action Plan for Repossession of Property that should give impetus to the sustainable return of Serb refugees. Reportedly reconstruction assistance has, in the second half of 2002, at last begun to be allocated to significant numbers of Serb applicants.

However, the government still refuses to take some key steps demanded by the international community. These include ending the practice whereby Croat temporary occupants of Serb homes cannot be evicted until given alternative accommodation, irrespective of their ability to provide for themselves. Thus the rights of temporary occupants take precedence over the rights of owners, contrary to the Croatian constitution and international standards. Similarly, the government continues to refuse to address the overall issue of occupancy rights – the main property right in urban areas in communist Yugoslavia – which were terminated, in a highly discriminatory manner, for Serbs who fled during the war.

The return and reintegration of Serb refugees and the full recognition of their rights continue to be politically sensitive. Political parties of the nationalist right, broadly antagonistic to Serb return, still enjoy considerable popular support, especially in the war-affected areas to which many would return. In thousands of cases the homes of would-be Serb returnees are occupied by displaced Croats, the majority from Bosnia. Moves to evict them have elicited fierce reactions, which the government has been reluctant to confront.

Facing pressure on one side from the international community to end discrimination and facilitate refugee return, and on the other side from the nationalist right, the government has adopted half-measures designed to appease the international community while failing to fulfil its commitments. Though recent moves suggest a more serious approach, they do not go far enough. The international community should continue to insist that Croatia meet its obligations on return and reintegration in full.

It has taken sustained international pressure for Croatia to legislate and promote return and to reverse discriminatory measures. The government has not yet shown sufficient good will to act without constant pressure and monitoring. A credible international presence, including in the field, needs to be maintained to advise the government on reforms and monitor its practice. It is essential that the international community continue to speak with one voice and give a clear message that return and reintegration and non-discrimination against minorities are taken seriously, and that Croatia cannot expect more progress on European integration until its performance further improves.

Zagreb/Brussels, 13 December 2002

Report 50 / Europe & Central Asia

Change in the Offing: The Shifting Political Scene in Croatia

The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has dominated Croatian political life since multi-party elections in April 1990 brought an end to communist rule.

The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) has dominated Croatian political life since multi-party elections in April 1990 brought an end to communist rule. The HDZ has been a broad movement rather than a modern political party, representing a wide range of political views and interests, united behind its leader, President Franjo Tudjman, in the aim of achieving Croatian sovereignty and independence. In 1990-91, large areas of the country were taken over by rebellious Croatian Serbs, with support from Belgrade. Thus for most of the period of HDZ rule in Croatia, large chunks of the country remained outside Zagreb's control, and the overriding priority was to restore Croatia's territorial integrity, a goal which was finally achieved in January 1998. Croatia also became enmeshed in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) as, supported by Croatia, the Bosnian Croats fought their erstwhile Bosniac allies in 1993-94. The obsession of Tudjman and the hard-line Herzegovina lobby in the HDZ with the dream of eventually detaching chunks of Bosnian territory and joining them with Croatia has been a persistent cause of international pressure on Croatia, as well as of division within Croatian politics.

Despite his own predilection towards the HDZ right, Tudjman valued the maintenance of balance between different strands in the party, and acknowledged the contribution of relative moderates in broadening the HDZ's domestic support and bringing greater international acceptability. After the end of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in 1995, many supposed that Croatian policy would shift towards a peacetime agenda of completing the transition to democracy and a market economy, and integrating Croatia into western structures. However, in 1998 the HDZ has shifted firmly to the right, and hard-liners, led by Tudjman's adviser on internal affairs, Ivic Pasalic, have emerged triumphant in the party. This prompted the resignations in October 1998 of leading HDZ moderates Hrvoje Sarinic and Franjo Greguric, amid accusations that Pasalic had manipulated the intelligence services in orchestrating a campaign of political assassination against them. In addition, the defence minister, Andrija Hebrang, failed in his efforts to reform his ministry, which had become a key centre of the shadowy, non-transparent method of rule that has emerged under Tudjman. The defence ministry is also the main conduit of support from Zagreb to the Bosnian Croats. Hebrang too resigned in October.

The triumph of the HDZ right has dispelled any illusions about the nature of the party, as despite efforts by Tudjman to revive the impression of balance within the HDZ, the few remaining moderates are now isolated. The party of Tudjman has been revealed, under the direction of Pasalic, in its true colours, as a party of the nationalist, xenophobic right. Any hope of meaningful change in Croatian policy towards Bosnia while Tudjman remains at the helm will be disappointed. The HDZ has lost credibility due to a succession of scandals, including a crisis at Dubrovacka banka, in which senior HDZ figures were implicated, the allegations regarding the intelligence services, and revelations regarding Tudjman family finances. Deepening social discontent has combined with a widely held perception that a politically-connected elite has enriched itself, while the majority of the population has been impoverished, to bring a sharp decline in popular support for the HDZ.

The opposition may stand to capitalise on HDZ discomfort, and opinion polls suggest that a new six-party opposition grouping has a real chance of defeating the HDZ in elections due in 1999, if it can hold together. As the opposition has gained in confidence, the isolation of remaining relative moderates in the HDZ has increased. Speculation concerning a possible re-alignment in Croatian politics, bringing together HDZ moderates and the opposition, appears now to have been overtaken by events, as opposition leaders are faced with the prospect of winning power without the need of any in the HDZ. As efforts by Tudjman to revamp the HDZ in advance of the elections appear forlorn, whether or not the ruling party can be ousted is largely in the hands of the opposition. An extremely delicate problem for opposition leaders is how to deal with the likelihood that Tudjman, whose mandate as president, his health permitting, lasts until 2002, will try to obstruct the formation of a government excluding the HDZ. Disputes have arisen among the opposition parties on how to approach the HDZ. The leader of the strongest opposition party, Ivica Racan of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) urges that dialogue with Tudjman be maintained, so as to avoid a confrontation between two irreconcilable blocs and contribute to the building of a stable environment for an opposition takeover. Some other opposition leaders are more uncompromising, suspecting that there could be no constructive dialogue with Tudjman.

As the opposition and the HDZ manoeuvre before and after the elections, Croatia is in for a period of instability in the medium term. However, if the HDZ were to be defeated, the outlook for the evolution of a stable democracy in Croatia would be much improved, as would the prospects for an improvement in Croatia's strained international relations. Defeat for Tudjman's HDZ would also have very important consequences for Bosnia, as the current opposition parties would behave much more constructively towards Croatia's neighbour than has been the case under Tudjman.

The trends are encouraging, and there is probably little that the international community could or should do to influence that process. Open international support for a particular political option in Croatia would be likely to be counter-productive. Rather the international community should be consistent in its approach to the Croatian government, irrespective of the party in power. International pressure over such issues as Croatian policy towards Bosnia, the return of Serb refugees, media freedom and electoral reform should be maintained.

Zagreb/Sarajevo, 14 December 1998

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