Serbs in Croatian Army


MON, 31 JAN 2000

Zagreb, 18 January, 2000 - When a year before the end of peaceful reintegration of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srijem (at the time this space was better known as UNTAES region), Croatian government had to make some serious moves in order to convince the international community of its readiness to reach a compromise wishing to extend its constitutional legal system to the then still inaccessible Podunavlje (the Danube river valley), one of the major indicators of good will was the letter of intent published on 13 January, 1997. This letter in 12 items was supposed to show the seriousness of the intention of Croatian authorities to enable continuation of normal life, free of every fear and possible frustrations, for the Serbs from Podunavlje after departure of UN troops. One of the important items in the letter of intent was two-year period of moratorium on doing the service in the army which freed Serb young men from joining the Croatian army. When reintegration was completed on 15 January 1998 and when institutions of Croatian administration took over control of Podunavlje, the two-year moratorium period started. After its expiry in the middle of this yearís January, the local Serbs were faced with the new fact of life: like all the young men of their age, they too will have to join the Croatian army.

Milos Vojnovic, president of the council of municipalities believes that this fact is still frustrating for many boys. He says that there are no investigations on their disposition, but judging by those who address the council of municipalities, majority of young Serbs are still disinclined to put on the uniform of Croatian army. Vojnovic recognises in it primarily a psychological barrier and thinks that insufficient time has passed since the war which would heal the wounds on both sides and blunt the still for many acute emotions. When this problem was discussed, says Vojnovic, before reintegration was completed, the Serb party proposed that the moratorium on serving in the army be much longer - up to five years, in order to free the generation which participated in the war or still has fresh memories of it of this obligation. Vojnovic claims that this would not have been a precedent because such cases are known to have happened in wars similar to the one in former Yugoslavia.

According to the estimate of the council of municipalities on the territory of Croatian Podunavlje there are between five and six thousand conscripts who would have to join the Croatian army now that the moratorium has expired. Last autumn, a few months before the expiry of the period of the moratorium, representatives of the Serb ethnic community had talks in the Ministry of Defence with minister Miljavec about this problem and as they say they reached a satisfactory agreement. At the time when these talks took place Croatia was heading towards parliamentary elections, so it was agreed, says Vojnovic, not to make the details of public. The Croat Democratic Community (HDZ) was probably afraid that leniency concerning this issue could cause discontent of its voters because there is a considerable number of people in Croatia who believe that Serb young men should not be exempted from military service.

According to what it was possible to find out and what has recently been confirmed by the office of the departing defence minister Pavle Miljavec, a solution could be found in the offer from the mentioned letter of intent. It is stated that if they wish to postpone military service after expiry of the moratorium Serb young men will have to submit a personal demand to the Ministry of Defence. The Ministry promised flexibility, which means that at least for another year Serb conscripts will not be forced to join the Croatian army. For the time being they will just be registered in army files, sent to physical check-up and recruited.

But the discussion whether Serb young men should serve in the Croatian army caused a sharp polarisation inside the Serb ethnic community in Croatia as well.

Veselin Pejnovic, one of the Serb leaders who unsuccessfully ran in the last parliamentary elections as a candidate of the Serb ethnic minority is quite explicit in the stand which is just the opposite of that of Milos Vojnovic. "Immediately after the expiry of the moratorium, all the Serbs from Croatian Podunavlje must as soon as possible do the military service because they cannot receive salaries from the Croatian state and at the same time avoid joining the services", declared Pejnovic to a daily newspaper.

President of the Party of Podunavlje Serbs, Rade Leskovac, has a similar opinion to that of Pejnovic. According to his admission, he caused considerable turmoil among members of the minority when on 1 November last year, on the Catholic holiday of the Day of the Dead, with his party colleagues he was the first Serb who lay flowers on the graves of Croatian soldiers who defended Vukovar. Leskovac says that among mostly rural Serb population in Podunavlje there is still too much prejudice, unnecessary fear and aversion and suspicion towards the Croatian state and its institutions, and he announces that his two sons, when the time comes, will certainly join the Croatian army. He adds that it is dishonest on the part of the Serbs to receive Croatian pensions, travel around the world with Croatian passports and expect various forms of aid from the Croatian state and at the same time refuse service in its army. Leskovac claims that such a stand and the fact that he paid reverence to the killed Croatian soldiers cost him success in the elections because his Party of Podunavlje Serbs has not achieved a significant result. But he also believes that for the sake of the process of establishing confidence - which takes time and requires cool heads - Croatian authorities would be wise not to insist on having Serb young men serve in the Croatian army as soon as the period of the moratorium expires.

Unfortunately, establishment of interethnic confidence in Podunavlje is very slow, perhaps among other because the departing Tudjmanís regime did not make the least effort to speed it up. Even without interethnic tensions which are smouldering under the apparently peaceful surface, Podunavlje is indeed an enormous problem for the Croatian state. Reconstruction is also very slow and this slows down the return of the Croats some of whom are banished from their homes for almost a decade. It is impossible to speak of economic development here; unemployment is enormous and by far exceeds the high Croatian average. Even if a vacancy appears - regardless of whether a Serb or a Croat gets the job - there will be hundreds of discontented persons both among the Croats and the Serbs. If only there had at least been jobs for everybody, if only the local population could devote itself to work and ensuring a sound existence, interethnic tensions would gradually disappear.

Vojnovic says that now that Racanís government is taking over its duty, talks will have to be continued in the Ministry of Defence in order to find the best solution for Serb young men who will have to join the army. In view of the statements of numerous leaders of the victorious coalition of the Social Democratic Party and the Croatian Social Liberal Party, he thinks that the new minister of defence will not lack flexibility. But more important than anything else seems to be creation of a favourable atmosphere in Podunavlje and whole of Croatia - which can equally be contributed to both by the Serbs and the Croats - an atmosphere of confidence and mutual tolerance which will, once established, take the question such as whether Serb young men should go to Croatian army off the agenda for good.