AIM: start

SUN, 02 DEC 2001 00:46:57 GMT

Croatian-Yugoslav Commission on Return of Refugees

Usurped - Cursed

AIM Zagreb, November 24, 2001

On Friday, November 23, a meeting of the Croatian-Yugoslav government commission on refugees was held in the castle of Bezanec near Zagreb. The Croatian side was represented by Lovre Pejkovic, Assistant Minister of Public Works, and Josko Paro, Deputy Foreign Minister, while on the part of the Yugoslavs the negotiators were Petar Lacevic, advisor to president Kostunica on refugees and Sandra Raskovic-Ivic, Serbian Refugee Commissioner. Although the tenancy rights of Serb refugees and displaced persons from Croatia had not been originally scheduled as a topic of discussion, the Yugoslav side managed to place the issue on the agenda. "The Yugoslav side considers tenancy rights as a top priority issue of the return process. This was not discussed in detail on this occasion, but we plan to present a comprehensive proposal for the repossession of dispossessed apartments at future bilateral meetings between FRY and Croatia", was the statement of Petar Lacevic upon the conclusion of the five-hours long session, while the Croatian delegation exhibited signs of restrained moroseness regarding the raising of the point in question.

It all started a couple of days ago when the Croatia’s Vice-Premier Zeljka Antunovic stated that the authorities had no intention of repossessing the 50 thousand apartments formerly in state ownership to Serbs once holding tenancy rights over them who have "fled Croatia of their own free will". Before long, Antunovic was given the wholehearted support of Miroslav Tudjman, late president Tudjman’s son and head of an extreme rightist group, the Croatian True Revival (HIP), who said the statement of the Vice-Premier "goes to prove that true Croatia’s interests are everlasting, regardless of who may be in power at the moment". Neither did the aforesaid Lovre Pejkovic - an ever reliable Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) hard liner, currently assistant to the Minister of Public Works Radimir Cacic - fail to have his say. He defined the OESS - organisation known for pushing for the restitution of exiled Serbs’ flats - as a silly institution whose repossession claims concerning such apartments were utterly "legally unfounded". As was to be expected, before long a series of similar outbursts of unflinching support for Zeljka Antunovic’s point of view ensued: Mirko Condic, Ljubo Cesic Rojs, Marinko Liovic, Ivic Pasalic....and, of course, that of the Constitutional Court judge Vice Vukojevic known for a statement made at the start of the nineties that he would" do all in his power to prevent the 10 thousand Chetniks’ wives buying off their apartments".

"The present authorities are obviously carrying on with the practice established in 1990. No wonder then that Zeljka Antunovic is applauded by radical rightwing circles", was the comment of university professor Zarko Puhovski, head of the Croatian Helsinki Committee (HHO), at a recent press conference. Judging as absolutely scandalous the decision of Prime Minister Racan’s government to hinder a considerable portion of Croatian citizens in the realization of rights due them, Puhovski added: "The outcome of the stance voiced by Mrs. Antunovic will be that the OESS mission will remain here until further notice, while a number of embassies and international organizations will be sure to scale up their monitoring teams in Croatia". According to Puhovski, the figure of approximately 50 thousand flats claimed by Serb refugees and displaced persons holding tenancy rights over them is highly exaggerated. According to the estimates of the HHO, 11 to 15 thousand of such apartments would be a much more accurate estimate. "Many have fled Croatia under extreme pressure and under threats to their lives, meaning that they had no chance of buying off their homes in a customary legal procedure. Furthermore, for a very long period of time, these people had no way of returning to Croatia, meaning that they are now entitled to realizing their rights as all other Croatian citizens", said Puhovski.

In a statement to the weekly Feral Tribune, Nikola Viskovic, a well-known law expert from Split, said that Zeljka Antunovic ranks among the 50 thousand ethnically labeled persons not only those who had left Croatia as members of a hostile army, but the great majority of citizens as well who had not abandoned their apartments and Croatia "of their own free will" but, rather, under threats of armed gangs and individuals. "This point of view alone is in itself sufficient to give the statement of the Vice-Premier, both factually and legally, the same sort of an ethnically exclusive, truly racist and morally and politically moronic significance as was that of the dispossessing of the property of Jews fleeing Germany ‘of their own free will’ during the Third Reich", says Viskovic. High officials of the OESS mission in Croatia joined the discussion by stating that: "The OESS mission does not intend or consider it useful to continue exchanging views with the Croat authorities in the media. The OESS will continue using the customary channels in dealing with the complex issues of the tenancy rights in order to help all those who have been deprived of their tenancy rights to find a solution to their problems". OESS also points out that some tenants were evicted from their flats with the use of force and under threats, an issue that needs to be dealt with urgently according to this organization: "OESS believes regulations compensating for the losses suffered by former tenancy rights holders should be prescribed and is willing to look for a solution acceptable to all sides in cooperation with the Croatian government".

"There are two categories of people which have been prevented from buying off their apartments. The first is made up of those who have been evicted from their flats by members of the military simply appearing at their doorsteps one nice day and throwing them out. We estimate that there were around 300 such cases in the whole of Croatia. The second category applies to families which have left Croatia in 1991 along with the Yugoslav Army (JNA). They were divested of their tenancy rights in accordance with article 102 of the Housing Law which provides for such a measure when the holder of the tenancy right is an enemy of the state or in cases when the tenants have not lived in the flat for over six months", said Tonci Majic, the head of the Dalmatian Committee for Human Rights, in an interview to Feral Tribune.

What was the procedure for determining who the enemies of the state were like? Well, for instance, this is how it was done on one occasion in October 1995. The Split subsidiary of HVIDR (Association of Croatian War Invalids) headed by Zvonimir Goreta sent a note to the housing commission of the Croatian Ministry of Defense (for years presided by Iva Pasalic) with the list of 77 "politically unfit" families living in socially-owned flats in Split, demanding that the said families be prevented from buying off their apartments. The reason cited: "They have filed requests for the repurchase of apartments owned by the Ministry of Defense; apartments bought off for petty sums will then be resold for outrageous figures, allowing these people - known "Yugo-nostalgics" - to move to their private homes in Split and cities in Serbia and Montenegro". Thus spoke Zvonimir Goreta six years ago and this is what Zeljka Antunovic had to say only recently: "All those intending to profit from alleged tenancy rights they once held in Croatia by means of repurchasing apartments for paltry sums and reselling them dearly later on, should better bury all such hopes". One cannot help asking: why on earth is the Croatian government so concerned over the way the money is to be used?! And, for that matter, what makes Zeljka Antunovic so certain that exiled Serbs intend to sell their flats in Croatia?

"People have been labeled as enemies of the state for the sole reason of leaving Croatia along with the Yugoslav Army. It was of no concern to anyone that alleged enemy activities need to be substantiated", says Veljko Miljevic, an eminent Zagreb lawyer and member of the Croatian Helsinki Committee. People were pronounced enemies of the state on a grand scale. Enemies were to be found even amongst the old, sick and blind and the aim of such a practice was that as many as possible square meters of living space be rid of Serbs so they could be occupied by individuals with a desirable blood count. Apartments formerly inhabited by Yugoslav Army members and countless others labeled as "Yugo-nostalgics" by characters like Zvonimir Goreta served as a basis for remunerating the merits of the so called war heroes: they were handed over to the courageous Croat freedom-fighters freshly arrived to cities throughout the country from their native villages in Herzegovina, Dalmatian Zagora, Lika.....

"Dispossessed apartments were often allotted to persons not meeting a single criterion needed for the allotment. Here is an example for you: a man comes to Split from Herzegovina, dons the uniform of Lausic’s military police and three days later breaks into the apartment of the Savic family. In other words, he came to Split in order to solve his housing problem and that goes to prove that such a practice was a result of a wider, planed strategy", says Tonci Majic. According to him, present Croatian authorities have a bit of a problem on their hands - they might soon find themselves in the position of being obliged to build entire cities for the displaced Serbs". What the authorities simply cannot allow themselves at present is to evict people living in flats formerly occupied by displaced Croatian citizens", explains Majic, adding that the International Court in Strasbourg is expected to soon pass a verdict for the first time equating tenancy rights with those of ownership". The eminent German law expert dr. Wolfgang Peukert has already asserted that the state of war in itself is a valid enough reason for someone not staying in an apartment for over six months", says Majevic. By the way, the international authorities in B&H have already passed legislation equating tenancy rights with standard property rights when pertaining to instances of tenancy rights over flats occupied before the war. Thus, for example, a Croat refugee from Banja Luka is entitled to the restitution of the flat he occupied in this city (and, naturally, has the right to sell it instantly if he does not intend to return to the Republic of Srpska), but the said Croat at the same time may have an apartment given to him by Croatian authorities. It often happens that a displaced Croatian Serb has formerly held tenancy rights over the said apartment, the very same Serb Zeljka Antunovic so readily denies his tenancy rights. In other words, the Croat refugee from Banja Luka is to have two apartments, while a Serb refugee from (say, Vrginmost) is forever to rove the refugee camps in Serbia.

"The issue is not whether the owners of these flats have the intention of returning to Croatia or not, but rather that no one has the right of dispossessing these people of their property", runs the resolute opinion voiced in the Split Feral Tribune by Veljko Dzakula, the head of the Serb Democratic Forum (SDF). Serb refugees, Dzakula believes, are entitled to the right granted to any other Croatian citizen of buying off the apartments the construction of which they have helped finance by money taken out of their salaries for years". Croatian government officials have not taken into consideration the issue of the restitution of property in earnest and their public statements are damaging to Croatia. It seems as if these statements are given hastily, with disregard as to the possible consequences", adds the head of the SDF. On the other hand, Toni Majcic believes individuals who have acquired an apartment or a house in Serbia should be denied tenancy rights in Croatia: "This should not be allowed, since such cases could compromise the entire repossession program".

Finally, only a simpleton could be brought to believe that Croatian Serbs had fled their homes out of caprice. In most cases, their apartments and houses were all the possession they had in the world, meaning they had to have been out of their minds to leave everything they ever owned of their own free will and without any cause.. Zeljka Antunovic and the likes of her simply refuse to comprehend this.