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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > Balkans > Croatia > Breaking the Logjam: Refugee Returns to Croatia

Breaking the Logjam: Refugee Returns to Croatia

Europe Report N°49 11 Sep 1998

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In outline form, the elements of the various agreements suggested by ICG, based on our presence in the region and extensive consultations around it over the last few months, are as follows:

As winter approaches in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia), conditions for refugee returns to that country become increasingly difficult. In neighbouring Croatia, by contrast, the weather is generally milder so that, given political will, refugees should be able to return to their homes throughout the winter months. Moreover, the Croatian government is organising a reconstruction conference next month, at which it hopes to obtain pledges of international support to help rebuild its war-damaged country. Many refugees from Croatia are Serbs – of whom some 300,000 now reside in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Republika Srpska – who fled previously Serb-held regions of Croatia in the wake of the Croatian Army’s 1995 military offensives.

The position Croatia's Serbs has long been contentious. Croat nationalists have often seen the Croatian Serbs as a Trojan Horse that has been used to undermine Croatia, with the aim of carving out pieces of Croatian territory and joining them to a Greater Serbian state. In communist times there was widespread Croat resentment at perceived advantages afforded to Serbs in Croatian party bodies and institutions. Serbs for their part derived many advantages from Croatia's inclusion in Yugoslavia, which placed them in a wider union bringing together Serb communities throughout Yugoslavia. The nationalist euphoria with which most Croats greeted the assertion of Croatian sovereignty and independence in 1990-91 caused anxiety and insecurity among Serbs which, manipulated by the Serbian leadership in Belgrade, led to an armed rebellion in regions in which Serbs formed a significant proportion of the population, and the expulsion of most Croats from those regions. Croatia's reconquest of most of those regions in 1995 met with international disapproval, due to the mass Serb exodus which it prompted and widespread atrocities against the few who remained.

Following the 1995 offensives, the Erdut Agreement was signed on the peaceful reintegration of the last Serb-controlled region, in Eastern Slavonia (the Croatian Danube region). After a transitional UN administration, the region reverted to Zagreb's full control in January 1998. During the transitional period Serbs in the region, both pre-war residents and displaced persons (DPs) from other parts of Croatia, were able to acquire Croatian documents. However, the reintegration process has not proceeded smoothly. Few Croats have returned, and the condition of Serbs remains difficult, with widespread intimidation, violence and discrimination forcing many to leave Croatia.

With the restoration of Croatia's territorial integrity, few Croats sympathised with the idea of allowing Serbs to return. While officially the authorities were committed to the return of all refugees, in fact the attitude was negative, and Serb returns were obstructed. However, increased international pressure led to the adoption of a returns programme in June 1998. Despite lingering doubts about the will of the authorities to implement it, the international community welcomed the programme, which had been prepared with its co-operation. Other doubts about the programme included its uncertain legal status (formally it does not have the status of a law); that it does not deal sufficiently clearly with the need to provide for Serb returnees who do not own property, and have lost occupancy rights in former socially-owned property; and that, despite the repeal of laws which had encouraged the take-over of Serb property by Croats, comprehensive, non-discriminatory property legislation is lacking.

Since the programme's adoption the procedure for Serb refugees to gain Croatian documents has been simplified, and the numbers of Serbs returning have increased. They nevertheless remain low, and particular problems are being experienced by those whose property is either occupied by Croats or damaged. The housing commissions set up under the programme to enable the recovery of property by returnees have mostly not functioned satisfactorily. The local authorities were often slow to set them up; commission members have in some cases complained of a lack of resources or remuneration for their work; instructions from the central authorities have been insufficiently precise; and commissions have been reluctant to evict temporary Croat occupants of Serb homes.

Reconstruction of damaged properties is under way, and an estimated 80,000 out of 143,000 destroyed or damaged houses have already been restored. The government has drawn up a reconstruction programme, and has scheduled a reconstruction conference for December 1998. The conference has been repeatedly delayed, as the international community tied its participation to progress in implementing the returns programme and evidence that the reconstruction programme would not discriminate between Croat and Serb properties. The government estimates the cost of the reconstruction programme at some $2.5 billion, and has expressed hopes of gaining substantial pledges of international assistance towards this at the conference, warning that the implementation of the returns programme will be slower without financial help. The international community has rejected this linkage, insisting that Croatia must fulfil its obligations without conditions. It is noticeable that when it has been considered to be in Croatia's strategic interest to carry out construction work, as in Croat-controlled areas of Bosnia, the funding has been there. It seems unlikely that significant international funding will be made available, and highly likely that the government will seek to present this as an excuse for slower returns.

Despite some progress, on-going problems underline concerns about a lack of will among the Croatian authorities to implement the returns programme, and that they will only do so under continued, intense international pressure. Croatia's desire for integration into western structures gives the international community some leverage, which should be used to ensure Croatia's compliance with international demands. With this in mind, ICG recommends the following:

  • Rigorous monitoring of the returns programme's implementation should be maintained. Any suggestion of a lack of will on the part of officials should meet a firm response. The Croatian authorities must be constantly aware that their performance is being watched. Practical difficulties, such as the poor performance of housing commissions and necessary legal amendments or clarifications, should be identified and swiftly addressed. As the only international agency on the ground with sufficient human resources adequately to monitor the implementation process, a substantial OSCE presence should be maintained for some time to come.
  • Stronger action needs to be taken to provide security for Serbs in return areas, including serious penalties for perpetrators of violence or intimidation. The trust establishment committees need to be activated, in an effort to build real reintegration and reconciliation of communities. The application of the amnesty law needs to be clarified, so as to reassure Serb returnees. Attention needs to be given to economic regeneration, as well as to measures to counter discrimination against Serbs in employment.
  • Clear criteria needs to be established for judging implementation of the returns programme. Apart from the actual numbers of returns, the performance of the housing commissions and the success of more problematic returns -- those to occupied or damaged houses -- should be key criteria. The international community should continue to press for adequate provision for Serb returnees who have lost occupancy rights in former socially-owned housing.
  • No significant international reconstruction aid should be made available until there is clear evidence of compliance with international demands regarding returns and non-discriminatory disbursement of reconstruction funds.

Zagreb-Sarajevo, 09 November 1998

 
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