Accessibility links

Breaking News

Croatia: Changes In Constitution Lead To Dispute Over Minorities

Prague, 19 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Croatia's constitution no longer names Slovenes and Muslims as recognized ethnic minorities. The reason for the change and the practical consequences of it for the two minorities are unclear. What is certain, however, is that Zagreb's sudden move has already provoked strong negative reactions in both Ljubljana and Sarajevo.

November 3, Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman proposed a series of amendments to the constitution. International media attention focused on an amendment to prohibit Croatian participation in any future Balkan regional grouping or new Yugoslavia, but he made other proposals as well.

One was to drop references to any specific ethnic minorities from the document, which dates from December 1990. That text referred to "Serbs, Muslims, Slovenes, Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Hungarians, Jews and others." Tudjman's proposal simply spoke of minorities in general terms. But when parliament passed the amendments in their final form December 12, it listed the minorities as: "Serbs, Czechs, Slovaks, Italians, Hungarians, Jews, Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians, and Ruthenes."

It remains unclear why parliament decided to change Tudjman's proposal, and why it chose to list the particular ethnic groups that it did. After all, official figures show that Muslims and Slovenes are the second- and third-largest minorities, after the Serbs. Croatia has some 23,000 Slovenes, while the numbers of Austrians or Germans can be counted in the hundreds.

It is also unclear as to what the practical consequences of the changes might be in terms of the day-to-day life of average Slovenes and Muslims. Croatian government officials downplayed the significance of the list in the constitution, and stressed the document and international agreements signed by Croatia protect the rights of all ethnic groups in the country, regardless of whether they are mentioned by name. Zagreb even offered to sign a special treaty on minorities with Ljubljana.

But the omission of their ethnic groups and the inclusion of some relatively tiny communities, nonetheless aroused Slovenian and Muslim suspicions about Croatian intentions. Part of the reason for this is the constitutional heritage of Tito's Yugoslavia, where the legal status of each ethnic community was taken very seriously. Before the breakup of that state in 1991, federal law clearly set down a pecking order among the numerous ethnic communities, which were divided into three categories in order of political importance: nations, nationalities, and ethnic groups. If a group was moved from one of these three categories to another, it was an event of major political significance.

Being part of this political tradition, the Slovenes and Muslims could hardly be indifferent to the changes in Croatia's constitution. The Slovenes were the first to register their surprise and disapproval. On the very day the Croatian parliament approved the amendments, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek was in Zagreb with a high-powered delegation to sign a series of economic agreements. One of them was designed to help pave the way for Croatia to join the Central European Free Trade Association (CEFTA), of which Slovenia is already a member.

Slovenia has had much more success than Croatia in becoming integrated in European structures, and was prepared to help Croatia join CEFTA, but now this is in doubt. On the night that the Croats passed the constitutional amendments, Slovenian Deputy Prime Minister Marjan Podobnik in Ljubljana called the exclusion of the Slovenian minority "unexpected and disturbing." Podobnik said that Zagreb's move will prompt Ljubljana to reconsider its support for Croatian membership in European bodies.

Upon returning home, Drnovsek echoed those sentiments. Slovenian press commentators called the Croatian move "Balkan," which in Slovenia is a highly negative epithet used against the country's former fellow Yugoslav republics. And the National Party's Zmago Jelincic suggested that Slovenia downgrade the legal status of two of its border crossings with Croatia, so as to bar them to international traffic, and, thereby, hurt Croatia's tourist industry, RFE/RL reported from Ljubljana December 17. Should Slovenia take any concrete steps to show its displeasure with the Croatian amendments, it will only further complicate a relationship that is already burdened by a series of disputes stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia. The points of contention involve bank deposits, property rights, the Krsko nuclear power plant, and access to the sea.

In Sarajevo, surprise and bitterness were likewise the universal reactions to the Croatian amendments. Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim member of the joint presidency, said that Croatia's move is at odds with the Dayton peace agreement on Bosnia, and with a host of European agreements on minority rights that Croatia has signed.

A spokesman for the non-nationalist Social Democrats, for his part, told RFE/RL that the Croat move "was no accident." He charged that it was an attempt by Croatian nationalists to deny that the Muslims are a distinct people separate from the Croats. He said that the Croats' goal is to undermine the Muslim-Croat federation in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a state of two equal partners.

It is thus clear that the Croatian amendments have already served to further strain Zagreb's uneasy relations with Ljubljana and Sarajevo. December 18, the Slovenian and Bosnian ambassadors stayed away from the official festivities in Zagreb to honor the anniversary of the constitution.