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Nationalist election victory leaves Croatia’s minorities concerned

28 November 2003

The election victory of Croatia’s nationalist centre-right party, the HDZ or Croatian Democratic Union has caused concern amongst minority groups in the country. As party leader and prime-minister elect, Ivo Sanader, begins the process of forming a coalition government, question marks remain over the HDZ’s commitment to democratic values and its choice of coalition partners. While the HDZ claims to have reformed since the days of Franjo Tudjman, a key test of this claim will be its willingness to implement minority rights standards. Mr Sanader has made assurances that the new government will not include the extreme right HSP party as was feared by minorities and other observers, possibly in favour of the conservative Peasants Party (HSS).

Minority organizations in Croatia have renewed their petitions to the new Government to respect minority rights and work toward full implementation of the Constitutional Law on the Rights of National Minorities (CLNM). However, as was recently highlighted in a Minority Rights Group International (MRG) report, poor progress has been made on a number of important issues in the past, including the return of refugees and issues regarding property rights and compensation. While Mr Sanader has publicly called on refugees to return, Serb minority groups have highlighted the need for guarantees in order for them to do so without fear of intimidation, and with adequate public provisions in regard to their economic, social and cultural rights. Criticism of the outgoing government by MRG highlighted delays and ‘half-measures’ in implementation of the CLNM in order to appease both the international community, minorities and the political right.

Minority Serb participation in the new government has been called into question by one of three Serbian minority MPs, Milorad Pupovac, who today declared that his party, the SDSS or Independent Democratic Serbian Party, is only willing to support negotiations with left oriented parties. Although the possibility of alliance with the extreme right HSP seems to have been ruled out, in part due to international pressure, some Serb leaders question the degree of real influence they would be able to exert on the HDZ. It is feared that sharing power could amount to tokenism, as occurred under the leadership of Franjo Tudjman, notorious for ‘Tudjman’s Serbs’ who were allowed little practical influence. Minorities may feel that greater influence can be exerted externally in active opposition to unfavourable policies of the new government. Despite guaranteed representation in the Croatian parliament under the CLNM, other minority groups within Croatia including Roma may feel marginalized within the current uncertain political negotiations.

The international community continues to have an important role to play in the political and security spheres in Croatia, where there is still an OSCE presence. Potential EU accession is seen by some as a possible bargaining tool in regard to minority rights, but only as long as the EU position remains strict with regard to accession criteria and standards of demonstrable implementation of minority rights. The EU is urged to monitor closely the protection of minorities, including implementation of the Constitutional Law and actual progress made towards sustainable return. Some believe that the international dimension may prove a significant factor, since Mr Sanader and the HDZ are keen to achieve an international image as a democratic political force, capable of leading Croatia into into the EU by 2007.

Minority Rights Group International reiterates its call to the new coalition Croatian government, with the assistance and cooperation of the international community, to devise and implement a well-financed programme, with clear, measurable targets, for the safe return of minority communities to Croatia. MRG has urged the EU to ensure that minority rights are an integral part of the partnership agreement with Croatia in adherence to the Copenhagen criteria on minority protection when considering Croatia’s accession. A strategy to promote inter-ethnic harmony is essential and should include major public education and information initiatives to address continuing prejudice and animosities.

Notes for editors

Minorities in Croatia‘. Edited by Minority Rights Group International (MRG). October 2003. ISBN 1 904584 101.

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].