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Yugoslavia: OSCE Mission Critical Of Croatia

Vienna, 24 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A report prepared for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says Croatia is not fulfilling its commitments in regard to the return of refugees from Serbia and Bosnia.

The 22-page report prepared by the OSCE Mission to Croatia says the government has failed to remove obstacles blocking the repossession of property by returning refugees, particularly ethnic Serbs. It also says the government does not provide equal access to reconstruction assistance by returning Croats and ethnic Serbs.

The Mission says: "double standards applied on the basis of ethnicity are apparent at all levels."

The Mission is also critical of delay in implementing the citizenship law. It says that in Vukovar alone more than 800 applications for naturalization have been pending for up to three years.

The OSCE Mission also expresses concern about Croatian Radio-Television (HRT) and says it is subject to political influence. It says opposition representatives do not have enough opportunities to respond directly to statements by government or ruling party officials.

The OSCE Mission to Croatia began operations in July 1996. Its mandate requires it to monitor implementation of legislation regarding the two-way return of all refugees and displaced persons. It also assists in developing democratic institutions in Croatia.

The Mission's latest report on Croatia was presented to the OSCE Council last week (May 20). It is the fourth such report since May 1998.

These are the highlights of the latest report:

RETURN OF REFUGEES: The Mission criticizes the slow pace of people returning to Croatia from Bosnia and Serbia. It says: "the main concern does not rest with the administrative mechanisms for return, but with the lack of political will on the part of the government to ensure adequate living conditions for returnees through the repossession of property by the rightful owners."

The Mission report continues: "Furthermore, double standards are applied on the basis of ethnicity at all levels of the process. For those who want to return, these difficult conditions negatively affect their belief that they will be able to build a stable future in Croatia."

The Mission quotes figures provided by the Croatian Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees (ODPR) on the number of refugees who have returned. These show that only about 32,500 ethnic Serbs have returned to Croatia from Bosnia/Herzegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia since 1995. The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 250,000 refugees from Croatia remain in Yugoslavia and around 30,000 remain in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

DISCRIMINATORY LAWS: The OSCE Mission says the Croatian government has not eliminated discriminatory provisions in the 1993 law on the return of refugees and internally displaced persons. It says ethnic Serbs are often denied their rights as Croat citizens in regard to the repossession of their property, reconstruction assistance and financial help.

HOUSING: The OSCE Mission was also critical of the approach taken by some official bodies in regard to returning refugees taking possession of their own property now occupied by others. It says the Housing Commission does not always meet the legal deadlines for issuing documents necessary for the repossession of property. As an example, it says the records of the Sunja Housing Committee show that some people who applied for repossession of their property last autumn still have not received the necessary documents, although the regulations require them to be issued within five days.

The OSCE Mission also says that in some cases there is apparently discrimination on ethnic grounds in repairing damaged houses. As an example, it says that in Mitnica (Vukovar), the majority of damaged or destroyed Croat houses have been reconstructed, "whereas very few ethnic Serbs in the neighborhood have received reconstruction assistance."

As another example, it refers to the predominantly ethnic Serb village of Karadzicevo, in the Danube Region. It says reconstruction has not commenced there although the majority of residence applied for reconstruction assistance in 1997.

COURTS: The OSCE Mission says there are too many judicial vacancies. It says in some areas the courts are unable to function because there are no judges and adds: "in the formerly Serb-majority areas of Lika-Senj county, this problem blocks the re-possession of property through the courts." It also says there has been no judge in Donji Lapac since 1995 and none in Korenica since the summer of 1998. It says both places are important centers for returning refugees.

The OSCE Mission report says: "access to the courts, to effective rights of appeal and to obtaining decisions within a reasonable time continue to be problematic."

FREEDOM OF THE MEDIA: The OSCE Mission says the legislative framework for the state broadcaster, Croatian Radio-Television (HRT), remains unsatisfactory. It says the government has not fulfilled its pledge to transform HRT into a public service broadcaster. The OSCE Mission says that "news and current affairs programming continues to be distorted and misleading, and in the early months of 1999 political bias became more pronounced."

The OSCE Mission said government officials get a disproportionate level of coverage. It added: "There is seldom an opportunity for opposition representatives to respond directly to statements by governments or ruling party officials. Information or news which reflect poorly on the government or ruling party are often distorted or omitted. Opposition parties are frequently portrayed in a negative light."

The Mission says there are repeated instances of news items unfavorable to the government or ruling party being cut from Current Affairs programs.

The report also says the government has made no progress in fulfilling its obligation to support the development of private broadcasting. However, it acknowledges that the Telecommunications law is under revision.

The OSCE Mission says the media situation is of particular concern now that Croatia is in a pre-election period. (Elections to the Lower House of Parliament must be held by January next year.) However, the Mission says the expressed readiness of HRT to consult on a fortnightly basis with representatives of the international community over the standards of news and current affairs programming in the pre-election period "is a positive step."