Minorities burden to the new authorities

Milivoj Djilas

TUE, 16 MAY 2000

Zagreb, May 13 - After days of rather heated discussions, which were not devoid of raised voices and new accusations of regionalism, and after much adjustments, on Thursday evening around midnight the Croatian State Assembly enacted the so called set of minority laws which redefine the position, rights and duties of national minorities and ethnic communities in Croatia, but also revoke until recently suspended "minority districts". The so called minority set contains three laws - the Constitutional Law on Human and National Minority and Ethnic Community Rights, the Law on the Use of National Minority Language and Alphabet, as well as the Law on Education in Minority Languages.

These three laws regulate numerous rights which the national minorities should enjoy from now on, and after adopting them Croatia should get rid of the Council of Europe's monitoring mission which raised serious objections regarding the treatment of minorities in Croatia which was one of the reasons for introducing silent sanctions. However, the mover of these laws, the Croatian Government, was given six months for drafting a new Constitutional Law so that it seems that the just adopted ones are only provisional and serve for scoring points in the world. It turned out that the new authorities like democracy only as an export commodity, but at home would rather have everything under their control which was also corroborated by the way these laws were adopted.

Practically by force and overnight, the new authorities have tried to eliminate certain vague elements regarding minorities in Croatia, which at the times of the Croatian Democratic Union were common practice in the daily behaviour of all politicians and - in all fairness - not only HDZ members. Problems with the legal treatment of national minorities have started after the completion of the "Storm" - a military-police action by which the Croatian military forces had liberated the so called SAO Krajina back in 1995. After great military success, the HDZ majority in Parliament suspended individual provisions of the Constitutional Law under which the Serbs were guaranteed the right to territorial autonomy in regions in which they were in the majority, as well as a right to be proportionally represented in Parliament, Government and supreme judicial bodies and on the basis of the 1981 census according to which they represented over 8 percent of the total population of Croatia. That Law too, whose provisions were suspended after the "Storm" and whose adoption was dictated by the international community, was an attempt at neutralising the abolished status of a sovereign nation, which the Serbs enjoyed under the Croatian Constitution until 1990 and the adoption of the new Constitution later that year.

By signing the Hague Convention Croatia agreed to grant the status of a special minority to the Serbs, which the Convention envisages for minorities which constitute over 8 percent of the total population of a state. However, former authorities were convinced that after the war in Croatia the share of the Serbs in total population would drop below the limits prescribed by the Hague Convention because of which the special status which guaranteed political, territorial and cultural autonomy would also be revoked. "Feral Tribune" concluded that "an impression was created that the storming and plundering of deserted Serbian houses, as well as killing of Serbian civilians and captured soldiers was aimed at reducing the number of Serbs below the magic limit of 8 percent" and that after that Tudjman's regime came into conflict with the international community which, for many years after that, criticised it for gross violation of human and minority rights. By adopting the new Constitutional Law, the new ruling coalition tried to remedy this situation, intolerable both for national minorities and primarily for Croatia.

To that end and by a decision of the Minister of Administration and Justice, Stjepan Ivanisevic, a working group for the drafting of the new Constitutional Law on Minorities was established. However, while that group, composed of numerous experts on minority rights problems, was preparing the draft of Constitutional Law, by summary procedure the Croatian Government submitted a proposal to Parliament without even consulting the group established by its Minister, let alone minority communities.

Milorad Pupovac, Vice-President of the Serbian National Council and a politician who has probably contributed most (although only partially) to the rehabilitation of Serbs in Croatia, and at the same time a member of that group, did not hide his surprise with this Government decision. "The news that by a summary procedure and without consulting either experts or minority communities, the Government has decided to submit for Parliament's consideration draft amendments to the Constitutional Law on Minorities, came like a bolt from the blue. I couldn't believe, as I cannot believe today, that the Government has decided to resolve one of the politically most sensitive issues overnight, without any consultations and in a way that de facto finalises what HDZ has started, i.e. gradual and systematic derogation of the rights of national minorities, especially the Serbian minority" wrote Pupovac in "Globus" adding that the Serbs were prepared to wait for better times and more level-headed debate about these problems, which was also their message to the international community.

The full burden of incomprehension of what the Constitutional Law should treat and in which way it could regulate minority rights was borne by Furio Radin, representative of the Italian minority to the Parliament and President of the Parliamentary Committee for Human and Minority Rights. Although national minorities have agreed in principle on basic terms of reference of this law - already at the time of HDZ rule - according to them nothing has essentially changed with the new amendments. These amendments do not regulate anything important but symbolic representation of minorities in Parliament, while provisions regarding proportionate representation at the local level have not yet been implemented in practice. It turns out that the latest amendments to the Constitutional Law on Minority Rights do not regulate these right in a satisfactory way, while provisions on the media, museums, symbols, names, cultural institutions have been fully omitted...and particularly, it does not treat the organisation of minorities and minority self-government in matters which are of interest for ethnic communities.

Instead of discussing this and demanding further consideration of this problem for another month or two, Furio Radin insisted on a more detailed definition of the model of relations between the (national) majority and (also national, and for that matter the most numerous one, i.e. Serbian) minority, which was met with hostility of the Parliament, while Mato Arlovic, President of the SDP Delegate Club, a party which in coalition with HSLS won the latest parliamentary elections, reproached Radin for advocating the federalisation of Croatia.

Namely, Radin expressed his opposition against the proposed Government solution on unilateral abolition of the right to territorial autonomy - when everyone, including the Serbs, agreed that that right was not so important - by demanding that in its stead adequate legal solution should be offered. The demand for such legal solution Arlovic interpreted as aspirations towards autonomy and federalisation of Croatia and Radin's explanations - about the autonomy as "a synonym for decentralisation of political power, especially synonym for decentralisation of tax policy", in which he primarily had in mind greater rights for individuals, and only then local and regional communities - remained a cry in the desert of, perhaps intentional, misunderstanding.

Disagreements about this set of laws were voiced even in the ruling coalition, which had hard time securing sufficient number of votes for putting them in force. While representatives of both opposition parties and HDZ as well as the newly founded Democratic Centre, voted for laws on the equitable use of minority languages and alphabets, as well as education in minority languages, true with numerous amendments, everyone was panic stricken how to secure a sufficient number of votes for the Constitutional Law. This time the scapegoat was a HSLS deputy Mladen Godek, who despite a broken zipper and missing button on his trousers, had to remain in his Parliamentary seat late into the night, until the Constitutional Law was adopted.

Its adoption means the abolition of special districts in the Croatian legal system (for the time being) , but after the new census scheduled for next year, a provision according to which national minorities which have more than 8 percent share in the total population, will have the right to be equally represented in state authorities. Only if the law is not changed by that time or something else, besides a zipper, breaks down.

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