2 October 2003, Volume 5, Number 32
THE VICIOUS TRIANGLE OF RETURNS.
A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Omer Karabeg with Ozren Tosic, high commissioner for refugees of Serbia, and Mirsad Kebo, minister of human rights and refugees of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
RFE/RL: Mr. Kebo, what do you make of the fact that of all the states created after the fall of Yugoslavia, only Croatia failed to return property rights to some Serbian refugees? Their flats were taken from them and given to other people, who later bought them.
Mirsad Kebo: I went to Croatia earlier this year to discuss the issue. We would like others to follow the example of Bosnia-Herzegovina. We do not want to lecture anyone, but as far as restitution is concerned, we have done a good job.
It seems to me that things are going in the right direction in Croatia, too. Obviously, Croatia, which badly wants to join the EU, will take into account EU criteria regarding respect for human rights, including property rights.
Ozren Tosic: As far as Croatia is concerned, there is also the problem of restitution. Some 19,000 demands for restitution have been filed so far.
According to the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE, Serbs have been deprived of more than 55,000 flats to which they had rights by virtue of prior occupancy. Other people have moved in since 31 December 1990, which is the date defined by the post-Yugoslav succession agreement regulating restitution.
Croatia is the only country in the region that has not yet ratified the agreement. I agree with Mr. Kebo that Croatia has made several positive moves lately. I am primarily talking about [Croatian President Stipe] Mr. Mesic's and [Prime Minister Ivica] Mr. Racan's invitations [to those who left] to return to their homeland -- Croatia.
This is a big step forward. However, for now it is only a statement that still needs political will to turn it into reality.
RFE/RL: Mr. Kebo, Croatia's failure to return flats to their previous owners affects Bosnia-Herzegovina, since those Bosnian Serbs who escaped to the Republika Srpska moved into Muslim flats and houses, and now the Muslims have no place to go.
Kebo: You are right. That is complicating the enforcement of property laws in the Republika Srpska. Many Serbian refugees from Croatia are now living in Muslim and Croatian houses. If the Serbs from Croatia could go home, many other Muslims and Croats might return to the Republika Srpska. Obviously, this is all connected. This is why a solution must be found on the trilateral level.
RFE/RL: However, it is not very probable that flats that have been sold can be returned to the Croatian Serbs. Mr. Tosic, what is your government's position? Does Croatia have to compensate its Serbian citizens?
Tosic: I would not be so sure that it is all over and that the rights of the previous occupants cannot be restored. We had similar cases in Bosnia-Herzegovina. If there is sufficient political will, the status quo ante can be restored....
This is an enormous amount of property: 55,000 flats must be worth at least 1 billion or even 2 billion euros (if we take the lowest prices on the market). Failure to solve this problem will be detrimental to regional stability.
I do not understand why Croatia refuses to return private property. I have already mentioned those 19,000 restitution demands. We have been told that some 13,000 of them have been approved -- but only on paper, since only 1,000 owners have actually returned....
Kebo: Mr. Mesic offered to solve these problems at a three-party meeting.... I believe we will soon be able to sign a trilateral declaration. We have opened this Pandora's box and there is no closing it now.
RFE/RL: Mr. Kebo, you are scheduled to visit Serbia very soon. Might one expect the two countries to finally sign an agreement on refugees?
Kebo: That is why I am going to Serbia and Montenegro.
Tosic: The agreement will reaffirm what we already have: excellent cooperation between our two countries regarding refugee problems.
It will enable us to have a joint policy towards the international community. Our first step will be to appeal to the EU together and ask for financial aid to help speed refugee return.