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South Slavic: July 27, 2000

27 July 2000, Volume 2, Number 28

What Future For The Serbs Of Croatia? - Part I

Omer Karabeg: In today's Radio Most (Bridge), we are going to discuss the position of the Serbs in Croatia with Zdravko Tomac, who is the deputy speaker of the Croatian parliament, and Milorad Pupovac, who is the chairman of the Serbian National Council. Part II will appear on 3 August.

[Editor's note: In the former Yugoslavia, Serbs were one of the six constituent peoples of the state, regardless of where they lived. After Croatia became independent in 1991, the Serbs there found themselves a minority in a Croatian state. The Serbian rebellion that started in 1990, subsequent wartime conditions, and the reluctance of the Tudjman-era leadership to be conciliatory toward the Serbs all combined to delay any resolution of the legal status of Croatia's Serbs until the opposition came to power at the start of the year.]

Mr. Pupovac, is it true, as some members of the Serbian community in Croatia claim, that they are second-class citizens? Does, for instance, the Serbian minority enjoy the same rights now as the Italian one?

Milorad Pupovac: No. The Serbian minority in Croatia is a new one, unlike the Italian, which is a traditional minority here. When I say this, I mean that the Italian minority had a clear legal status in the former Yugoslavia that has carried over into this [independent Croatian] state, both through intergovernmental agreements and by the implementation of European conventions and standards concerning minorities.

Unlike the Italian minority in Croatia, until recently the Serbian one actually had to start from scratch from a legal point of view. Now we dealing with drafting laws, especially the constitutional law about minorities, which will regulate the position of the Serbian minority. The Serbs are neither a typical linguistic minority, nor a typical religious minority. Ours is a new national minority community whose status is to be regulated in accordance with...some recent positive developments concerning our position [such as the 1995 Erdut Agreement].

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Tomac, do you agree that the position of the Serbian minority, as Mr. Pupovac said, is a new one that should be regulated by a special law?

Zdravko Tomac: We have already adopted a series of laws regulating all minority rights. We have also adopted a constitutional law, although it remains to be finalized in order to ensure that all minority rights are guaranteed by the constitution.

As far as the Serbian minority is concerned, I find the attitudes of both sides important. It is very important for the Serbs in Croatia to accept Croatia as their homeland, to accept that they are a special ethnic community within Croatia. One must remember that there was a war, that crimes were committed, that both sides suffered, and that the memories are still painful.

Croatia is, for all intents and purposes, the only Balkan state in which a policy of a completely open, multiethnic, and multinational society is being attempted. A society in which it is clearly said that we reject Croatian nationalism, that we reject the concept of a Greater Croatia and of a Greater Serbia, and that we reject the concept of living in a ghetto--one [group] next to another instead of [living] together.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Tomac, you did not answer my question. Do you agree with Mr. Pupovac's idea that the position of the Serbian minority should be regulated by a special law?

Zdravko Tomac: There is no special law for every minority. We are adopting minority laws that regulate the right to a language, alphabet, and education. We have listed all the minorities in our constitution, and I do not think that it would be wise to have a special law for every minority.

Milorad Pupovac: First, the specific characteristics of some minority communities should be recognized. For instance, what is relevant for the Italians, as a classic minority that enjoys the right to use its language and has special educational institutions, is not so much important for the Serbian minority since it is not a typical linguistic minority.

What we should find for the Serbs are solutions foreseen by, for example, the [1995] Erdut Agreement and the Letter of Intentions, as well as by some elements of our tradition. Therefore, the Serbian community needs an institution of minority autonomy in accordance with the mechanisms already existing in Eastern Slavonia or in other states such as Hungary or Slovenia. It should not be a form of government but of self-administration and self-organization in matters of culture, identity, and survival as such.

The Serbs are really a historical minority in Croatia. They are an integral part of the national and state identity of Croatia, which makes them more important and stronger than some other minorities--if I may say so without seeming to deny minority rights to anyone. In this respect, the constitutional law should mention some of the institutions guaranteed to the Serbian minority by some international contracts such as the Erdut Agreement, and by some relevant documents such as the Letter of Intentions.

Zdravko Tomac: I think that a discussion about all those things should be opened. The best solutions should be adopted, meaning those that would make the minorities in Croatia its national treasure instead of a source of problems. I think that, after all that has happened, the Serbian and Croatian peoples should turn a new page in their mutual relations.

Omer Karabeg: There are other ideas coming from the Serbian side concerning the position of the Serbs in Croatia. For example, Milan Djukic, chairman of the Serbian People's Party, thinks that Croatia should be cantonized and that the Serbs should be given three or four cantons in those regions where they are the majority population. Mr. Pupovac, what do you think of this idea?

Milorad Pupovac: We, the Serbs, had an opportunity to get two districts thanks to the [previous government's] constitutional minority law. Those two districts were supposed to institutionalize the territorial autonomy of the Serbs in the Republic of Croatia. Unfortunately, the [hard-line] Serbian leaders such as [Milan] Martic and others refused to discuss it and therefore denied the Serbs the right to get the territories in which they represented a historical minority.

To demand cantonization or territorial autonomy today simply means to put a huge burden on the fragile shoulders of the Serbian community in Croatia. That initiative simply lacks seriousness and there is no reason to discuss it. The Serbs in Croatia today have better things to do.

First, there is the issue of the return of their properties. Several thousand families are unable to return to their homes. That problem will not be solved by territorial or any other autonomy. The central government is the only one able to resolve it. The Serbs should be integrated in the communities they live in. They should take part in local administrations and governments, in the counties, and in the entire state administration.

That is the real challenge for the Serbs and for Croatia. The Serbs must get out of the sort of a ghetto they live in now. They must stop functioning on a NGO level and start participating in decision making in what we call common tasks and the public good.

This is what I consider the greatest challenge for Croatia and for the Serbs in Croatia. The Serbs are a dispersed minority today, with some relatively homogeneous enclaves in different parts of Croatia. This new situation demands an adequate solution, namely minority self-government on a local, national, and state level, based not on the territorial principle but on the principle [of individual membership in the Serbian community].

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Tomac, what is your opinion about Serbian cantons in Croatia?

Zdravko Tomac: Well, my opinion is very negative, just as I have a negative opinion about the [proposed establishment of a] third, Croatian, entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We are talking here about a model of ethnically pure territories, based on a concept that equality can be secured only if you have your own territory and live separated from other nations.

Every demand for special territorial status for the Serbs, for an ethnically pure territory would only strengthen Croatian extremism and nationalism both in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina. That would bring us back to the vicious circle we had already broken. We want to guarantee the right of all the minorities to feel at home, to express their cultural individualities.....

Omer Karabeg: Ante Djapic, chairman of the Croatian Party of [Historic] Rights, recently threatened the Serbs, saying: "The Serbs in Vukovar will get into big trouble when we come to power." What do you think about that threat, Mr. Tomac?

Zdravko Tomac: Djapic and his party will never come to power since they enjoy support of some two or three percent of citizens of Croatia. I would not pay much attention to what Ante Djapic and those like him say, since I think that the huge majority of the Croatian people do not accept his policy--the policy of extremism....

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Tomac, as far as I know, the government has distanced itself from Djapic's statement, but many think that is not enough, that his statement should be subject to legal proceedings since it promotes national intolerance.

Zdravko Tomac: I do not think that there should be a legal case against him. I think that he should rather be defeated by the force of arguments and thus marginalized. Some of [the extremists] would probably like to be prosecuted in order to become more important.

I think that there are extremists in all democratic states, but I am not an advocate of political repression against those who say things like that....

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Pupovac, are the Serbs afraid of Djapic's threats?

Milorad Pupovac: Not as much as they used to be afraid, but I should add that things like that cause as much fear and concern as [HDZ parliamentary leader] Mr. [Vladimir] Seks' statement that the Serbian returnees have started fires in Dalmatia or that they have threatened Croatian politicians. Those are irresponsible and dangerous statements.

I do agree with Mr. Tomac that, whenever possible, we should avoid restrictive measures...against [free expression of political opinions]. However, one should say that Mr. Djapic has tested the limits of what is constitutionally permissible many times in the past, thus threatening what we call state security. His statements have directly motivated, if not provoked, people to [carry out] a certain kind of violence. That can be documented.

This is the reason why the government's institutions should clearly say that freedom of speech is something that should not be questioned or limited, but that statements like Djapic's in these still unstable circumstances could motivate some people to interfere with other people's lives and their property. This is what, unfortunately, Mr. Djapic and those like him do.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Pupovac, are you satisfied with the government's reaction after Djapic's threats, or do you think that tougher measures should have been taken?

Milorad Pupovac: As far as political parties are concerned, I can understand the caution of some concerning Mr. Djapic. But I think that government institutions should send him a clear message that he has crossed the line and threatened the constitutional order as well as national security. That is simply what should be said.

Zdravko Tomac: I agree, but I do not find the situation so simple. We are fighting a political battle against extremism and I think that we should be the ones to judge what would be the most effective way to win this political fight. We think that we have managed to push back and win against those Rightist, nationalistic, and extremist structures. We might have made them stronger if we had taken tougher administrative measures.

What is important here is that the Serbs trust that our policy is sincere, and that the new Croatian leadership does not want an ethnically pure Croatia but a modern, democratic, and European Croatia with citizens all enjoying equality. The more minority rights, the better and more secure the minorities feel--the better the Croatian state would look and function.

But I do not think that a stronger reaction was needed [against the extremists], since some of them actually want a tougher response so that they could become politically stronger. I agree that some statements and acts [by Djapic and others] have disturbed people, but one should note that they have used the same kind of abusive language about the president, the prime minister, and the entire new government. They have called us traitors and insulted us in the worst possible way. They not only threatened the Serbs, they threatened the new government and still do.