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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Serbs in Croatia

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Croatia Facts
Area:    56,538 sq. km.
Capital:    Zagreb
Total Population:    4,872,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

In 1999, President Tudjman, the nationalist leader of Croatia, died and was replaced by a democratically elected government led by what had been the opposition party. Croatia is proceeding towards European Union membership and therefore must be very careful with how it treats its minority groups. The situation of Serbs has been improving, as evidenced by the influx of Serb refugees back to their homes in Croatia, and this trend is likely to continue. Nevertheless, serious challenges remain and, unfortunately, the long history of animosity between Serbs and Croats in Croatia and the low number of Serbs in the country mean that few political parties openly cater to the Serb community. The level of political and economic exclusion is high enough for the Serbs to continue to protest their treatment in Croatia, though it appears that the days of militant activity may be over, especially as Croatian Serbs currently lack military support from Serbia.

Since the end of the Tudjman era, tensions have been reduced but significant problems remain. The two pressing issues are (i) high levels of official and societal discrimination against Serbs and (ii) the indeterminate position of hundreds of thousands of Serb refugees (some of whom have returned) who have not had their property restored or been compensated for their losses. New laws continue to be introduced to combat discrimination, demonstrating an effort on the part of authorities, but it will take time to assess their implementation and efficacy. Recent court decisions also suggest progress on property restoration and allocation of reconstruction funds to Serbs but, again, these are small advances relative to the size of the challenge.


Analytic Summary

When Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, the Serb population in Croatia found itself a very small minority in a hostile environment. The Serbs recalled the extreme repression faced by their relatives at the hands of the pro-Axis Croatian Ustase during World War II. After a Croatian Serb attempt to separate from Croatia and join Serbia, the Yugoslav army attempted to take the land by force. Many of the Serbs fled to Yugoslavia during the war (MIGRANT = 5), despite the fact that many had been in Croatia for hundreds of years (TRADITN = 1). Serbs were easily identified in Croatia even though they do not have different physical characteristics than others (RACE = 0). In addition, their language is very similar to Croatian, except for the fact that it uses the Cyrillic alphabet (LANG = 1). Croatian Serbs also practice Orthodox Christianity (BELIEF = 3) and have a distinct culture (CUSTOM = 1). As a result of the highly charged ethnic issues in the region, othersí ethnic backgrounds are common knowledge among the entire population of Croatia. As a result, the Serbs are highly organized and cohesive (COHESX9 = 5). Since the war, the Serbs have been concentrated in the Slavonia and Krajina regions of Croatia (GROUPCON = 3). The Serbs who have stayed in Croatia and those now attempting to return are tasked with trying to integrate themselves into Croatian society.

The origins of conflict between Croats and Serbs in the former Yugoslavia can be traced back at least as far as the late 1920s when Franz Ferdinand's imposition of dictatorial rule led former political opposition parties to form terrorist groups such as the above-mentioned Croatian Ustase and the Macedonian IMRO. During World War II, Yugoslavia was overrun and occupied by Italian and German forces. After clandestinely supporting the Croatian Ustase for a number of years, the Axis countries installed Ustase leaders as the rulers of the Independent State of Croatia. The Croatian government of anti-Serb leaders engaged in a campaign of persecution, expulsion, and execution of all Serbs living in the territory it controlled. After the Croatian regime was defeated by Tito's Partisans, several hundred thousand Croats suffered reprisals handed out by Serbs and Croatian opponents.

Although Titoís Yugoslav Federation imposed centralized authority over the various ethnic groups and their republics, the central government was frequently perceived by Croats and other ethnic groups as being unfairly dominated by Serbs. Demands, accusations, and occasional terrorist actions continued until well into the 1980s. The decline of centralized authority in Yugoslavia during the late 1980s led to fears that a newly independent Croatia would revert to the same repression of Serbs that occurred during World War II.

Fears of a return to brutal repression led Serbs living in Croatia to seek unification with Serbia during 1990 and the first half of 1991. With Croatia's independence in June 1991, the Yugoslav Army and Serb militia groups in Croatia set out to seize control of Serb-inhabited territory inside Croatia and unite the territory with Serbia as a defense against potential repression. After nine months of war, Croatian Serbs controlled about one-third of Croatia's territory, including areas of Eastern Slavonia, Western Slavonia, and Krajina. Branches of the Serbian Democratic Party were soon established in neighboring Bosnia, and a Croatian Serb military pact with Bosnian Serbs was constructed with the intention of fighting Croats and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Serb occupation of Croatian territory was characterized by numerous "ethnic cleansing" campaigns where Croat residents were forcibly expelled from Serb-held areas so that Serbs could resettle them.

As indicated earlier, after four years of stalemate and diversions caused by the war in neighboring Bosnia, the Croatian Army managed to quickly recapture Serb-occupied Western Slavonia in May 1995 and the much larger Krajina region in August 1995. Croatian reprisals against Serbs were reportedly widespread as more than 100,000 Croatian Serbs fled or were forcibly expelled to East Slavonia (East Croatia) and Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia and Serbia. The additional loss of Knin (West Croatia) and the reintegration of East Slavonia with Croatia also hurt the Croatian Serb population.

As of 1999, Serbs of Croatia were still encountering continuing human rights violations both by Croat authorities and the Croat populace. Harassment and physical attacks against Croatian Serbs continued, and Serbs were killed and taken into custody for acts related to the conflicts in 1995. Further, while the Dayton accord and the Erdut agreement had laid down the principles arranging for the return of refugees, Croatian authorities remained reluctant to comply, creating administrative problems to impede the return of Serbs. In the late 1990s, International monitors continued to observe Serb departures from East Slavonia.

Much has changed, however, in the post-Tudjman era. The Croatian government has been eager to demonstrate its commitment to EU membership and has implemented policies to comply with previous agreements and facilitate the return of Serb refugees. These policies include greater allocation of reconstruction funding and a landmark decision in the courts to facilitate repossession of Serb property lost during the conflict in the 1990s. In response to this, Serbs have begun returning (DMINFL01 = 3; DMINFL02-03 = 2). Nevertheless, much remains to be accomplished: harassment and attacks by local Croats against Serbs continued, with some involving fatalities (COMCON01-02 = 3, INTERCON01-03 = 1); Croatian authorities condemned ethnically motivated attacks and opened investigations, but arrests or judicial proceedings did not always follow. Discrimination against the Serbs in judicial proceedings was also widely reported, with outcomes of war crimes prosecutions largely determined by the ethnic identity of both the defendant and the victim (POLIC01-03 = 1).

While the new government has begun implementing changes to improve the position of Serbs, overall political discrimination remains large-scale. Many of the new policies and minority legislation introduced recently may soon show results but, as of 2004, this was not the case (POLDIS03 = 4). Currently, the Serbs are only guaranteed one representative in the Croatian government, although they did manage to attain a few parliamentary seats in the 2003 election. They are also discriminated against economically via current social practice, and public policies aimed at rectifying this situation are almost wholly ineffective (ECDIS03 = 3). There are very few Serbs in the civil service and the police force, and this is due to social discrimination in hiring practices. These hiring practices have affected the groupís economic well-being by limiting where they can get jobs. The Serbs have been given an extension on their amnesty from the Croatian draft. Draft status is an important concern for the Serbs because conscription could produce a situation where Serbs would be drafted to fight fellow Serbs.

Due to the tense situation that the Serbs find themselves in, it is not surprising that they have several organizations intent on protecting their interests. In the predominantly Serbian Krajina region, the government is Serbian, which gives the group representation and attempts to protect them. The Serb National Council is a country-wide organization that lobbies the government and reports on Croat action. Both the Serb Peopleís Party and the Alliance for Change are political organizations attempting to gain more influence for the Serb minority. As mentioned, the Serbs are only guaranteed one representative in the Croatian government, thus limiting the influence of these parties. The Serbs in Croatia also rely on support from the Serbian government to pressure the Croatian government on Serb issues. The United Nations has monitored the treatment of returning refugees and attempted to influence the Croatian government to act in a more responsible way in relation to this problem.

For the 2003 national elections, Serbs united behind the Independent Serb Democratic Party (Srpska Samostalna Demokratska Stranka, SSDS). This party was formed shortly before the regional elections in Eastern Slavonia in 1997. The SSDS began as a coalition of parties and is committed to conventional politics; it entered into an agreement of support with the Prime Minister after the 2003 elections.

Beyond the lack of representation in the Croatian government and the treatment of returning refugees, the Serbs have other concerns. There are still many Serbs who want the Serb-dominated areas of Croatia to secede and join what remains of Yugoslavia (AUTGR203 = 2); others demand outright independence or simply wider political autonomy within Croatia (AUTGR303, AUTGR403 = 2). While citizens of Croatia who are outside of the country have the right to vote in elections, people of Serb descent in this position (i.e., refugees) have not been allowed to vote. Although Serbian culture is not under attack in Croatia, its preservation is of great importance to the group because they fear losing their language and culture in a nationalistic Croatia (CULGR203 = 2). Finally, the Serbs are still threatened by Croats, and they desire protection from them. As recent history has shown, this threat remains real (CULGR503 = 1).

As mentioned above, when it began to appear that Yugoslavia was about to dissolve in the late 1980s, Serbs in Croatia began to protest to have their areas joined with those of other Serbs in Yugoslavia as a whole (PROT85X = 4). These protests increased in the 1990s after the disintegration of what is now the former Yugoslavia (PROT90X = 5). Today, Serbian protests continue over their treatment in Croatia and the plight of the returning refugees, although the protests do seem to be diminishing (PROT00 = 3, PROT01 = 2; PROT02-03 = 1). Militant activity was at its peak during the civil war in the early and middle part of the 1990s (REBEL90X and REBEL95X = 7), but there have been no reports of militant activity since 1998 (REB98-03 = 0).



Human Rights Watch World Report: Croatia 2001-2003.

Lexis/Nexis: All news files: 2001-2003.

US Department of State Human Rights Reports: Croatia 2001-2003.


© 2004 - 2024 • Minorities At Risk Project

Information current as of December 31, 2006