Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Croatia lies in the north-western Balkans. On the eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea, it borders Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Hercegovina. Historically, it also has strong links with Italy, which lies across the Adriatic.
The Croats entered the Balkans in the sixth and seventh centuries and established a kingdom which in 1102 was incorporated within Hungary. During the Middle Ages, the Croats were converted to Roman Catholicism; adherence to the Catholic faith remains an important aspect of Croat identity. In the sixteenth century, a part of Croatia was overrun by the Turks and the rest fell under the control of the Austrian Habsburgs. On the border with the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburgs established the Military Frontier (Vojna Krajina). The frontier was populated largely by peasant soldiers, many of whom were Serbs.
Croatia remained a partially self-governing unit within the Habsburg Empire until 1918. The Habsburgs tended to use the Serbs to control the Croat and Hungarian feudal peasants. In 1918, Croatia entered the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (after 1929, Yugoslavia). In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia and, with significant local assent, established a puppet Croatian or ‘Ustasa’ state. The Ustasa were responsible for war crimes and atrocities against Serbs, Roma, Hungarians and Jews.
At the end of World War II, the socialist forces of Josip Broz Tito massacred thousands of Croats, some of whom were uniformed Ustasa forces, but also many civilians. After the war, Croatia was incorporated within the reorganized Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) under Tito. The state structure was organized along ethnic lines. Some minority rights were respected, and Tito attempted to control ethnic divisions and to suppress nationalism by means of the one party state.
The state was not democratic, and following Tito’s death in 1980, the SFRY was governed weakly from Belgrade under an eight-person presidency, the chair of which rotated yearly among the constituent republics and autonomous provinces. In this atmosphere, Serbian politicians began playing to popular grievances about perceived Serbian under-representation in Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic became President of Serbia, and manoeuvred to seize half of the federal presidency by wresting control over three further votes in the rotating council: those of Montenegro and the autonomous Serbian provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina.
Belgrade’s grasp for the levers of power in the SFRY accelerated the break-up of the Communist Party in other republics, including Croatia. Milosevic played into the hands of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), led by Franjo Tudjman, who had been jailed under Tito in the 1970s for his nationalist rhetoric. Not only the Communist Party was crumbling; Milosevic’s moves to consolidate Serb control over the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) weakened another central pillar of Yugoslav unity. Croatian multiparty elections held in 1990 resulted in a decisive victory for the HDZ, and in June 1991 Croatia declared independence based on a referendum allowed under the SFRY constitution.
The re-emergence of Croatian national symbols and such nationalist declarations from Tudjman as, ‘Thank God my wife is not a Jew or a Serb’, awakened fears among the Serb minority in Croatia who recalled slaughter at the hands of the Ustase. Through propaganda, Milosevic actively stoked such fears, while simultaneously arming JNA units and Serb militias who launched a war to prevent Croatia’s independence.
The fighting that followed saw enormous loss of life, large-scale displacement along ethnic lines, and human rights abuses, deep divisions between ethnic communities and a further rise of nationalism. Part of the Serb minority, backed by the JNA, declared an independent Republika Srpska Krajina, which at one time occupied 30 per cent of Croatia’s territory.
Fighting continued. In 1992, a UN Protection Force arrived, and Croatia gained international recognition. Nevertheless, fighting continued. In 1995, a major offensive dubbed ‘Operation Storm’, co-ordinated with the Bosnian Army and backed by the United States, led to the recapture of Serb-controlled Croatia.
The operation was accompanied by the massive displacement of Croatian Serbs, but whether their departure preceded the attack or resulted from it remains a matter of dispute. In 1995 the signing of the Erdut Agreement secured peaceful reintegration of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium into the legal and political system of Croatia, and established a UN Transitional Administration (UNTAES) in these areas. Also in 1995, the Dayton Agreement secured peace for in neighbouring Bosnia and Hercegovina.
Between 300,000 and 350,000 Serbs were displaced as a result of the 1991-1995 war. Approximately 220,000 Croats were displaced as a result of the establishment of Serb Krajina in 1991. The return of ethnic Croats is virtually complete, but thousands of Croatian Serbs remain displaced.
Main languages: Serbo-Croatian, also Italian, Hungarian and Albanian
Main religions: Roman Catholic, Christian Orthodox, also Muslim
According to the 2001 census, main minority groups are Albanians (15,082), Bosniaks (20,755), Czechs (10,510), Hungarians (16,595), Italians (19,636), Roma (9,463), Serbs (201,631) and Slovenes (13,171).
The ethnic make-up of the population has changed considerably, mainly as a result of the wars in former Yugoslavia. Between the 1991 and 2001 censuses, the total population of Croatia dropped by 7.25 per cent. The ethnic Croat population increased by 11.5 per cent and the minority population halved, with a particularly sharp drop of the ethnic Serbs from 12.2 to 4.5 per cent. However, the results of the census were disputed by many organizations and are likely to have underestimated minority populations, particularly Serbs and Roma.
The Croats are a Slavic people who speak Croatian, a language known before the war as Serbo-Croatian, the dialects of which did not conform to ethnic categories in the former Yugoslavia. Since the early 1990s regional politicians have prompted the differentiation of the common language into Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and even Montenegrin ‘languages’, leading to some conscious linguistic changes along ethnic lines. Croatian uses the Latin alphabet. According to the 2001 census, ethnic Croats make up 89.6 per cent of the population. Most ethnic Croats are Roman Catholic.
Ethnic Serbs are by far the largest minority and, together with the Roma, face the most discrimination and exclusion. According to the 2001 census, they number 201,631 and make up 4.5 per cent of the population. The results of the census underestimate the number of ethnic Serbs partly because many ethnic Serbs were outside the country at the time of the census, including refugees who intended to return, and partly because some people may have been afraid to declare their ethnicity. The Serb population decreased sharply from 12.2 per cent in the 1991 census, mainly as a direct result of the war. Ethnic Serbs speak Serbo-Croatian, and use the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Most Serbs are Christian Orthodox.
According to the 2001 census, there were 19,636 Italians in Croatia, who for the most part share Roman Catholicism with the Croat majority. They are well organized and have educational institutions, publishing houses, cultural groups and educational institutions. In Istria, they have participated in public affairs at the local and regional level. In 1996 Croatia and Italy signed an agreement on the rights of minorities.
Most Hungarians live in Baranja. They organize numerous cultural activities, and have a central library, a publishing house and local radio programmes in Hungarian. There is some Hungarian language teaching, with 350 pupils attending classes of Hungarian language and culture across Croatia, not all of them ethnic Hungarian. According to the 2001 census, there were 16,595 Hungarians in Croatia, representing an historical decrease from post-World War I highs of 120,000. According to the United Nations, after the outbreak of hostilities in Slavonia in 1991, more than 40 per cent of the Hungarian population left Croatia.
Other minorities who, according to 2001 census, number more than 10,000 people are: Albanians (15,082), Bosniaks (20,755), Czechs (10,510), and Slovenes (13,171). There were also 9,463 Roma; however, this group is likely significantly larger, as fear of discrimination leads to the under-counting of their numbers.
In post-war Croatia, the HDZ gradually lost its grip on power, especially following the death of President Tudjman in 1999. Constitutional amendments in 2000 and 2001 weakened the presidency and gave Croatia a parliamentary system.
Croatia’s constitution ensures equality of all persons. It defines Croatia as a state of the Croatian nation along with members of ten listed national minorities and ‘others’. The current legal framework prohibits discrimination in some areas of public life, such as employment.
Following the adoption of a Constitutional Law on National Minorities in 2002, Croatia has a generally good legal framework for the protection of minorities. However, implementation of this law has been patchy, often due to lacking political will. In particular, the Councils of National Minorities at the local and regional level have not lived up to expectations in large part because local and regional authorities have not considered them to be serious partners.
Equal access to employment in the judiciary and state administration has also lagged. Nevertheless, there have been important changes in both legislation and practice, and the dialogue between the authorities and representatives of national minorities has improved. Access to justice remains a problem in Croatia. Reform of the judiciary and administration is necessary; there is a large backlog of cases and need for proper enforcement of judgements.
Minorities are particularly affected by the delays and problems with enforceability in relation to property rights. Although there have been improvements in the prosecution of war crimes trials, judicial bias against ethnic Serb defendants persists.
Electoral reform is underway in the lead up to 2007 parliamentary elections. Outstanding issues include voting rights for displaced Serbs and ethnic Croats who live outside Croatia, particularly those who are citizens of Bosnia and Hercegovina, establishing non-discriminatory residency criteria, establishing a point of reference for calculating minority representation at the local level, and the synchronization of elections for the Councils of National Minorities with local elections.
The political situation has improved within the region. As part of the Sarajevo Process, Croatia and its neighbouring countries, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Hercegovina are working together with international partners on issues of refugee return, although some of the most sensitive issues have yet to be tackled. In 2003, Croatia applied to join the European Union.
The EU is its biggest trading partner and donor, and has most leverage politically through the accession negotiations, which were opened in 2005. The advance followed Croatia’s co-operation in bringing about the arrest of fugitive General Ante Gotovina, wanted for trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, but regarded by many Croatians as a hero for his leading role in Operation Storm.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Centre for Peace, Legal Advice and Psychological Assistance – Vukovar
[Acts on the protection and promotion of human rights, democracy development and development of interethnic relations]
Tel: +385 (0)3 241 3317
Serbian National Council
Joint Council of Municipalities
Serbian Cultural Association ‘Prosvjeta’
Community of Serbs Rijeka
Sources and further reading
Advisory Committee’s on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities Opinion on Croatia, adopted in 2004. retrieved 27 February 2007, http://www.coe.int/T/E/human_rights/minorities/
Briza, J., Minority Rights in Yugoslavia, MRG Report, London, 2000.
European Commission, DG Enlargement, Croatia Country profile: http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/croatia/index_en.htm
Mikic,Ljubomir, Croatia: Challenges for Sustainable Return of Ethnic Serb Refugees Centre for Peace, Legal Advice and Psychosocial Assistance and Minority Rights Group International. 2005.
MRG (ed.), Minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, London, MRG report, 1993.
Report on Croatia’s Progress in Meeting International Commitments since 2001, OSCE. 2006, www.osce.org
Payne, K, (ed.), Minorities in Croatia, MRG Report, London, 2003.
Poulton, H., Minorities in Southeast Europe: Inclusion and Exclusion, MRG report,London, 1998.