AIM: start

SAT, 06 OCT 2001 01:14:13 GMT

Where are Bosnia's Croats Headed?

AIM Zagreb, September 27, 2001

Long ago in 1992, everything seemed very simple to Franjo Tudjman. According to the minutes from a meeting with Mate Boban which somehow reached the public from the Archives of the President's Office, the late Croatian president arranged a swap of the Bosnian side of the Sava River Valley -- in which over 180,000 Croatian Roman Catholics lived -- for certain parts in western Bosnia mostly inhabited by Serbs. The plan, roughly outlined even before the war and whose details were worked out by numerous intellectuals on both sides, was mostly carried out. The logic behind the new, mass migration of people was simple: the newly-formed states, as Kosta Cavoski used to explain, should be "nice and compact," with ethnically homogeneous populations. Tudjman's Croatia gave up the Sava River Valley, most of central Bosnia and Croatian pockets around Sarajevo -- not to mention eastern Bosnia -- and the Serbs, obviously in exchange, left Krajina, western Bosnia and other regions where in accordance with the designs of great strategists, they were an obstacle. After 200,000 Bosnian Croats moved into the promised land, the Tudjman government offered them promises, guarantees, and personal documents... and a number of Serb houses and apartments. Back then, the historical project seemed easy to achieve: Tudjman's power was at its height, the Serbs were declared people who had voluntarily left Croatia, and all international statistics showed that of all refugees from a certain region, in ideal conditions, hardly one third returns. All this was covered by a special law which immediately after Operation Storm deprived all refugees of their real estate in Croatia and tenants automatically lost their tenancy rights to apartments six months after vacating them.

This project, although seeming impregnable, much like the World Trade Center in New York, however, began crumbling. Even though Tudjman's policies seemed alive and well, especially concerning ethnic relations, in the first year after the new Croatian government took office, it appears that Racan has decided to change the status quo. Namely, last week Croatian Vice Premier Goran Granic said that Croatia intends to repeal all temporary permits for the use of Serb property, "because we do not wish to bear that burden any longer," he said. The motives behind this decision, however, are not purely ethical, but it was prompted by persistent objections from the OSCE mission in Croatia, which quoted the slow process of return of property to Serb returnees as one of the key reasons for extending its mission in Croatia. The government was also blasted for its continuous conflict with the leaders of the Serb community in Croatia, who not even two years after the change of government have felt any improvement in the official attitude towards them. The government would like to get rid of European monitoring as soon as possible, this being proof that Croatia has become a part of Europe.

The operation, however, will have its price, and it will not be low. Namely, some 30,000 Bosnian Croats are still living in Serb houses, and by the end of the year they will have to be accommodated elsewhere. Last year the government took a EUR30 million loan to purchase the homes of those Serb refugees who do not wish to return, and to remodel them, but also for lots on which new houses for Bosnian Croats are to be built. The money was spent, but more money, which Croatia does not have, will have to be found to house 30,000 Bosnian Croats. It is certain that the state will have 20 million kuna in construction material for building new houses. This should suffice to build 300-500 homes, enough for only one-tenth of the people who need a place to live. The others will have to move from place to place for who knows how long.

A permanent solution will cost even more. To put an end to the refugee issue Croatia will need, according to a government analysis, over 600 million kuna, or DM150 million! Not only Bosnian Croats are without homes, but Serb returnees as well and they are returning: not in great numbers, but slowly and surely. Recently, the registration of Serbs from Croatia who used to have apartment tenancy rights began. Backed by international pressure, they will attempt to force the Racan government to restore their rights, as was done in all states created from the former Yugoslavia. For now, Serbs from Croatia are the only ones who have been denied that right. According to certain estimates, there are some 40,000 of them. "The loss of tenancy rights should be viewed as a major obstacle to their return," OSCE spokesman in Croatia Alessandro Frascetti recently said. "It is a major issue indeed, which the OSCE mission has brought up several times with the Croatian government. Unfortunately, we have not received any response in regard to what the government plans to do in the future."

The "humane resettlement" operation has, however, mostly been a success. According to recently publicized data, over 120,000 Bosnian Croats have been granted Croatian citizenship, which is one-half of the number that the war uprooted and brought to Croatia. Some 40,000 of them now live in the region that used to be called Krajina, and is today technically labelled "the special state care region." They reside there side by side with the indigenous Serbs, trying to understand what "special care" actually means, because it brings nothing to either group. The other two-thirds are accommodated in Eastern and Western Slavonia, Zagreb, Rijeka, Istria, Split, or the Adriatic islands. According to official data, some 20,000 people do not have Croatian citizenship. Obviously, they will have no other chance but to return to Bosnia. Some 4,500 Bosnian refugees have returned already, but they are mainly Serbs, and only about 10,000 Bosnian Croats have come back. A new census will undoubtedly show that the Croatian state is more Croatian than ever. According to some estimates, between 92 and 95 percent of all ethnic Croats from the former Yugoslavia are living in Croatia today. On the other hand, today's Bosnia has never been less Croatian and for exactly the same reason.

Boris Raseta