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South Slavic: August 3, 2000

3 August 2000, Volume 2, Number 29

What Future For The Serbs Of Croatia? - Part II

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 I appeared on 27 July.

[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.]

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Pupovac, to what extent are Serbs today represented in governing bodies and in leading positions in Croatian economic life, education, and culture?

Milorad Pupovac: Unfortunately, only symbolically. For example, in the parliament, we have only one seat, just like some other minorities having no more than a few thousand members or several hundred voters. It is a legacy of the HDZ era that we have never accepted nor ever will. The [minimal] presence of Serbs in local, regional, or national administration, in leading companies, and in other key institutions in Croatia is absolutely unacceptable.

Serbs are, unfortunately, almost completely excluded from these domains. It will take time to change this situation. For instance, it is not normal that there are no Serbs at all either in the city council or in the administration of Vojnic, although the Serbs constitute a local majority there. The same goes for Knin [where Serbs were a majority before 1995].

I find that the Eastern Slavonian model is the right one. That model does have its weak aspects, but it still represents the right way for us to achieve an adequate presence for the Serbian community in carrying out functions for the general benefit.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Tomac, do you think that the presence of Serbs in administration and some other leading positions should be increased?

Zdravko Tomac: That is to be gradually achieved, until the concept that has prevailed in my party becomes dominant in the entire society. We, from the Social Democratic Party, do not care whether someone is a Croat, a Serb, a Hungarian, or an Italian. We have four or five Serbs among our deputies, which proves that, when democracy is functioning, there is no need to demand a special kind of a structure [for minority quotas]. Once those democratic relations prevail everywhere in Croatia, it will no longer be possible that there are no Serb representatives in a local parliament of a city where there are so many Serb inhabitants.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Pupovac, do you think that the present situation in Croatia will enable all the Serb refugees to return with no obstacles at all?

Milorad Pupovac: The prerequisites have been created for the return of all those who want to come back... However, many problems remain unresolved. For example, the problem of efficient issuing of travelling documents by our embassy in Belgrade.

The problem of the return of properties has not been resolved since this government has not yet created appropriate mechanisms for solving the problem of the return of Serbian property occupied by Croatian refugees from Bosnia.

As far as the reconstruction of houses is concerned, the Serbs have indeed been disadvantaged in recent years. You can almost count on one hand those Serb returnees whose houses have been restored or who were granted government aid to rebuild their homes.

Those are serious difficulties standing in the way of the returnees, but one should nonetheless say that the atmosphere has changed as well as policy [since the elections at the beginning of 2000].

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Tomac, is Croatian government ready to [pave the way for] those Serbs who are willing to come back and give them back their houses and apartments?

Zdravko Tomac: In principle, yes, but there are a lot of mostly financial and economic problems.... It will also depend on whether some 200,000 [Croatian] refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina will be allowed to return to their homes. Most of them are now occupying houses of Serbs, while those Serbs live in the Croats' houses in Bosanska Posavina.

Until that problem is resolved--and without financial means for reconstruction, without jobs--a principled political decision that all of them can return is not feasible....

Omer Karabeg: Every national minority has its mother country to rely on. Mr. Pupovac, do you consider Serbia your mother country and are you developing relations with it?

Milorad Pupovac: To the extent to which Serbia exists as a state in which the Serbs are consolidated as a nation--yes, we do. However, the way things are right now, Serbia is in a state of flux and the Serbs are not consolidated as a nation. Therefore, we, the Serbs in Croatia, as a newly created national minority, have found ourselves in a situation similar to that of other minorities in Croatia--for example the [Bosnian Muslims].

We are waiting for our mother country to become consolidated, democratized, stabilized, and open to cooperation with the rest of the world. We do cooperate--and especially in recent times--with different opposition and independent circles in Serbia and in Montenegro. This is how we wish to help the normalization of relations between Croats and Serbs.

Today's Croatia does have many advantages [over some of its neighbors], and the average inhabitant of Serbia should be informed about that fact. For instance, he should know that Croatia found the strength to win the fight against itself, against its own weaknesses, in the January elections. Believe me, the Serbs in Serbia and in Yugoslavia, the citizens of Serbia, have no greater challenge at this moment than to fight against themselves, their own weaknesses.

We, the Serbs from Croatia, will be satisfied and happy when the government in Serbia becomes democratic and internationally recognized....

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Tomac, do you find it normal that the Serbian community is developing relations with Serbia, no matter what regime is in power there?

Zdravko Tomac: That is a difficult question. I do not think that being linked to the Belgrade regime--which brought them into their present situation--is good for the Croatian Serbs, nor for the relations between the Serbs and the Croats in Croatia. That would only strengthen the nationalistic forces in Croatia.

Omer Karabeg: And, as far as the opposition circles in Serbia are concerned?

Zdravko Tomac: Of course we are not against their ties with the democratic forces. I am just trying to be pragmatic and say that there will be no peace in the Balkans until Slobodan Milosevic's regime is gone. This is why any kind of ties with Serbia under his regime can only bode ill for those who have those ties.

Omer Karabeg: I think that--as far as the return of the Serbs is concerned--the new government in Croatia is in a difficult psychological situation. Some Croats think that the greatest merit of Franjo Tudjman is the fact that during his reign, the number of the Serbs in Croatia was cut to a minimum. The Serbs therefore no longer represent a political force in the country. The leadership of the HDZ considered that the way to resolve the Serbian question in Croatia once and for all. The international community has, in effect, given to [the new Croatian government] the task of undoing what the previous government achieved, as far as the Serbs are concerned. I fear, Mr. Tomac, that the task is a very difficult one and that it will not be welcomed by the domestic public.

Zdravko Tomac: Our stand is very clear. We won the elections with a policy that was the complete opposite of the HDZ's. We were against what is called a "human resettling." We were against the concept of resolving the problem with some kind of a Serbian-Croatian agreement on [setting up] ethnically pure territories and the division of Bosnia. We have given up the idea of an ethnically pure state, and from the very beginning, we were for the concept of a multiethnic and multicultural society.

However, our success will depend on what happens in Bosnia-Herzegovina [and whether the Croats from there can go home].... If the Republika Srpska remains ethnically pure, then our policy might cost us the next elections....

Many things [also] depend on the attitude of the Croatian Serbs, whether those among them who are for living together will prevail [and not those] who would again demand political autonomy and the federalization of Croatia--all those things that already led to conflict.

Milorad Pupovac: I recall a thought by the famous Polish author, Czeslaw Milosz, who once said that the Poles faced two curses after World War II. First, they had lost their historical minorities--some eight million Germans, several million Jews, and several hundred thousand of others such as the Ukrainians. The second curse is that [they retained] anti-Semitism.

There is no nation that can allow itself such a curse. And there is no reason for a situation like that to continue in Croatia. Croatian democracy has already shown--and it will continue to show--that ethnic cleansing, an ethnically pure state, and an ethnocentric political system do not belong here.

Finally, the main question is not how many Serbs there will be in Croatia. The main question is whether they will be integrated into Croatian society. Their identity must be a part of the Croatian national identity. They have to be recognized as a minority and not--as was the case [under Tudjman]--excluded from society....

As far as the number of the Serbs is concerned, it will be difficult to [return to the pre-1995 figures]. But in terms of values, political ideas, and the quality of human relations--that is feasible. I am deeply convinced of that, which is what motivates me to keep working and to remain active on a political scene. This is why I am now talking with you and with Mr. Tomac about what I think represents the present and future of Croatia.

Omer Karabeg: According to constitutional law, the status of the Serbs would improve considerably if their number reached 8 percent of the population [ed.: the Serbian population of Croatia prior to 1990 was about 12 percent]. In that case, they would have 8 percent of the posts in the government. Do you think, Mr. Pupovac, that the Serbs could reach this crucial percentage soon?

Milorad Pupovac: I am not so sure that this issue should be discussed in terms of a percentage.... I find that solution quite arbitrary. I do not find it so important to have a declarative, normative guarantee of proportions. I think that we should ensure [instead] that the Serbs participate in all aspects of life in Croatia. If that proves to be impossible, then [equality] should be ensured with a document that would guarantee [a fair quota of positions]....

Even today, the Serbs represent a significant minority in Croatia. One should recall that there were 250,000 Serbian voters in electoral lists for the January elections and that some 150,000-160,000 voted. Therefore, even now the Serbian minority constitutes just a little less than these 8 percent.

However, I would like to say once again that one should not be focused on numbers.... The Serbs should have a far bigger share in public affairs in Croatia since they represent an important historical and demographic minority. This is why they should have guaranteed a sort of specific status within some general framework.

Omer Karabeg: Mr. Tomac, do you think that, as far as the presence of the Serbs in the government and in other bodies in Croatia, the 8 percent cut-off point should be observed?

Zdravko Tomac: I agree with my colleague Pupovac. Why 8 and not 7 or 9 or some other percentage? The point is to ensure equality and security. Whether the 8 percent will remain in the new constitutional law remains to be discussed. But that is the way it is now, [and for now at least] we should observe it. When conditions change and we do not need to bother with percentage figures, then we certainly will adjust the legislation accordingly.