Fwd: AIM: Minorities in Post HDZ Croatia


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*** Minorities in Post HDZ Croatia
 
AIM Zagreb, March 5, 2001
 
According to the Croat constitution, ethnic minorities are entitled to
the same rights as the majority nation. But, in reality, the practice
of open discrimination of ethnic Serbs and other minorities is still
going on in a number of regions. The phenomenon is particularly
noticeable when the judicature, employment policy, residence rights
and freedom of movement are concerned. Thus, the pattern of constant
and, at times, violent harassment and intimidation of ethnic Serbs in
the formerly war stricken regions constitute a major problem Croatia
is yet to solve. At the start of the year, high officials of the
present authorities pointed out their commitment to the
non-discriminating treatment of minorities, but, in some instances,
these very same state officials failed to condemn a number of serious
incidences of discrimination and harassment of ethnic Serbs.


Last May, the government of Ivica Racan adopted a series of laws on
minority rights, including a constitutional law by which further nine
ethnic groups, including Bosnians, Albanians and Slovenians, were
added to the existing list of seven ethnic minorities recognized by
the constitution. Some independent observers, as well as the leaders
of ethnic Serb organizations, criticized the obvious haste and secrecy
accompanying the adoption of this constitutional law. In answer to
this, state representatives announced that further amendments on
minority rights and local self-government were to be added to the new
law. The year went by, but not a single amendment was adopted.

In spite of the constitutional guarantees, ethnic minorities -
particularly Serbs and Romanies - are at present still exposed to
disproportionate discrimination. At the recent rally in support of
General Mirko Norac held in Split, the protesters chanted profanities
addressed to Vesna Pusic, the leader of the Croat People's Party, and
president Stjepan Mesic, meant to be insulting by naming them Serbs. A
banner inscribed "Mesic, gypsy!" seen on the same occasion is a vivid
illustration of what some Croats think of Romanies. Yet, in comparison
to the predominately strained relations at the time of the HDZ rule
(Croat Democratic Union), certain progress in the communication
between the present authorities and the Serb minority in Croatia has
been made. Still, in spite of the said improvement, the circumstances
concerning national minorities in Croatia are a far cry from being
satisfactory. University professor and president of the Serb National
Council, Milorad Pupovac, believes that the main problem of the actual
authorities, as far as minorities are concerned, lies in the fact that
they would prefer not to deal with the issue at all.

The government provided further evidence of its indelicate handling of
the minority problem when it made a cut in grants allotted to ethnic
minority associations and organization in Croatia. More to the point,
the state Office for Ethnic Minorities recently assigned 18 million
kuna to minority associations and institutions - 9 per cent less than
they could count on in the preceding period. The mentioned act of
Racan's government provoked considerable irritation,  particularly
among prominent representatives of the Serb and Italian communities in
Croatia. Representative of the Italian minority in Croatia's
parliament and prominent activist of the Italian Union, Furio Radin,
stated: "Of the new government, we have hoped for a heightened
sensibility to the minority problem. What we got, are better laws and
less money."

Failures concerning the minority policy of the a little over a
year-old government can best be viewed from the standpoint of
ethnic-based incidents which have occurred during its mandate,
particularly in regions suffering the greatest consequences of the
recent war. To start with, two ethnic-motivated murders,
characteristic of tensions in the country as whole, took place last
year.  One concerns the March case of a thirty- eight-year-old Serb
returnee to the Adriatic island of Vir after eight years of exile in
SR Yugoslavia.  A week after his return, three Croats beat him to
death while shouting anti-Serb slogans. The perpetrators were soon
caught and international observers judged the reaction of the police
as satisfactory. But, the official communication condemning the
incident was not issued by the authorities until several days later.
The very same week, in the West-Slavonian town of Slatina, after a
dispute having to do with the war, a Croat stabbed to death a
seventy-three-year old Serb woman.

Incidences of harassment and intimidation of Serbs have continued to
occur in war stricken regions during the entire duration of the past
year. In May, around 50 Croats interrupted the memorial service held
in Veljun commemorating the victims of a WW II fascist massacre,
chiefly attended by Serbs. Certain Biserka Legardic, a Croat woman,
took her panties off and urinated on the memorial tablet. No one
called  her to account for her deed, nor did she suffer any 
consequences for the barbaric act. Two weeks later, five Croats
invaded the memorial grounds and vandalized the monument. All five
were arrested but, due to lack of evidence, charges against them were
dropped in August. As for the Croat government, it denounced both
instances of vandalism in Veljun - belatedly. During the summer, in
Karlovac, Sisak and Erdut, a number of posters with the photographs
and names of local Serbs appeared, accusing them of war crimes. The
police investigated the cases and identified the suspects, but the
prosecutor's office never brought charges against anyone. The
motivation behind these incidents was more than obvious: intimidation
of all possible Serb refugees who have, perhaps, decided time for
return was ripe.

In autumn, the Danube river-basin region of Croatia was plastered over
with  "warrants" similar to posters accusing local Serbs of war
crimes. Some of them appeared on the Internet, most were placed on
public view in the said towns, some delivered to home addresses of
certain local Serbs. Not one government official found it necessary to
condom these criminal acts. In October, 15 ethnic Serbs from the
Baranja region were arrested on charges of war crimes committed in
1991, generally believed to be founded on insufficient evidence. This
resulted in speculation that the Osijek prosecutor had, in fact, acted
upon charges cited in the bogus warrants. At the same time, Marko
Rogulj, a Serb judge of the Vukovar court, found himself threatened by
an angry mob comprised, among others, of the Catholic parish priest
Petar Cobankovic. The incident was brought on by judge Rogulja's
ruling that a Croat police commander was to be evicted from a Serb
home he had taken possession of. The eviction was never carried out
and the case later handed over to another judge. Not a single local or
state government official ever publicly took a stand on the matter,
nor was the harassment of judge Rogulja ever condemned in any other
manner.

Ethnic-motivated incidents of greater or lesser gravity have occurred
at a rate of over fifty such cases per month. In approximately two
thirds of these cases, the victims were Serbs.. Along with the two
homicides, there were also several instances of hand-grenade attacks
on private ownership. In March, a group of Croats went from house to
house in the Danube-valley town of Erdut, terrorizing local Serbs,
including the town orthodox priest and mayor.

The constitution and the package of constitutional laws on minority
rights adopted in May have laid down the legal foundation for the
realization of the right to schooling in the mother-tongues of the
constitutionally recognized minorities. Still, some problems have
remained unsolved. For example, in some textbooks, the history of
former SR Yugoslavia is still being interpreted from the viewpoint of
Croat nationalists and even the new textbooks are not free of abusive
terms ascribed to ethnic minorities. In short, the new authorities
have not kept their word to provide for more balanced teaching matter.

The procedure for acquiring Croat citizenship differs for applicants
of Croat origin and all others. Even in cases involving person who
have never been granted citizenship of former Socialist Republic of
Croatia, ethnic Croats are entitled to Croat citizenship if they
merely submit a written deposition stating they consider themselves
citizens of Croatia. Applicants of all other ethnic origins are
obliged to meet much stricter naturalization requirements in order to
obtain the selfsame status. Even those with valid  residence in
Croatia while it was a part of former SFR Yugoslavia are obliged to
offer proof of their residence in the former country and its
citizenship while, at the same time, no such evidence is required of
Croats.

Non governmental organizations (NGO) helping Serbs solve their
problems in acquiring Croat citizenship have filed complaints
concerning local officials making use of the double standards applied.
The said legal obstacles in obtaining Croat citizenship have led to
discrimination in various fields, including the voting rights of the
persons concerned. Furthermore, until their applications are decided
upon, the applicants of pending citizenship requests are denied social
welfare benefits such as health insurance, pensions, free schooling
and employment in the state public sector. On the other hand, in the
past, the rejection of many citizenship applications has been
accounted for by citing article 26 of the Citizenship Law which states
that persons otherwise meeting all other requirements may be denied
the said right if they pose a threat to national security and article
8 of the said law which rules that all such persons must offer proof
of " loyalty to the legal system and the customary Croat way of life
".

In spite of the 1998. returnee program prescribing multiethnic
"housing commissions" entrusted with the restitution of all private
ownership, Serb owners of homes invaded by refugees from Bosnia and
Kosovo are still denied the right to take possession of their own
property. The lack of available alternative accommodation and
political will to evict Croats from Serb homes has, in many regions
outside of the Danube-valley district, resulted in modest results when
such cases are concerned.

As for Romanies, discrimination and violence against them has
continued in post-HDZ Croatia, too. The only indication of a positive
shift is the fact that not a single case of police brutality towards
them was registered in 2000. According to the 1991. census, there are
but 6700 Romanies living in Croatia at present. Both government
officials and NGO activists believe the figure is too low and that the
genuine estimate is somewhere in the vicinity of 40 000. The attitude
of certain government structures towards the Romany community is best
illustrated by a Human Rights Watch report on a case from the Varazdin
district. In May 2000, after having put a ban on the construction of
permanent homes for them and the laying of water pipes and electric
power installations, the local Varazdin authorities ordered 420
Romanies out of their settlement in the village of Strmec Podravski.

Although, officially, Croatia does not have a state religion, the
Roman Catholic Church enjoys the financial support of the state
inasmuch as the pensions of Roman-Catholic priests and nuns are paid
out of the government pension fund. Other religious communities still
do not have a similar privilege, nor is a law regulating the matter
yet in existence. For example, in order to secure their retirement
rights, orthodox priests and imams contribute to the national health
service and pension funds themselves. Nevertheless, representatives of
several religious communities believe that, in this respect, the
overall situation has somewhat improved following the parliamentary
elections from last January. But, the fact remains: a law guaranteeing
equal rights for all confessions in Croatia is yet to be passed.

The government insists catechism be introduced into the school system,
at the same time defining attendance to religious instruction as
non-mandatory. In reality, the lack of funds, scarcity of pupils and
qualified instructors belonging to minority religions represent a
serious obstacle when minority persuasions are concerned. The result
being that, in fact, the only religious instruction offered in
Croatian schools boils down to Roman-Catholic catechism. High-ranking
representatives of the Jewish religious community have, for instances,
noted that the basic facts offered to school children attending
religious instruction classes are false and their offers to contribute
to a more balanced perspective in forming the tuition matter have all
been rejected. A similarly bias handling of the minority issue holds
true for the Croat army. Nineteen catholic priests are on the payroll
of the Croat Ministry of Defense. Not a signal orthodox priest or
Muslim imam enjoys the same privilege. Furthermore, only catholic
priests attend and bless the solemn-oath ceremony of new Croat army
recruits, as opposed to religious leaders of all other denominations
who remain excluded from such occasions.

All in all, religious affiliation and nationality are so closely-nit
in Croatia that it is often almost impossible to discern the
distinction between them. Nevertheless, a significant number of
clearly ethnic-motivated crimes remain a serious ailment of the Croat
society to this very day.

# IVANA ERCEG

(AIM)

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