Analysis: Problems hinder return to CroatiaBy Gabriel Partos
Thursday, 10 February, 2000
Croatia's President-elect, Stipe Mesic, says all refugees, including ethnic Serbs who fled Croatia, should be allowed to return to their homes.
Mr Mesic's remarks - which reflect the promises of the recently-elected broad-based coalition government - are in stark contrast with the policies pursued by Croatia's nationalist administration under the late President Franjo Tudjman.
Four years after the Dayton peace accords there are still nearly 300,000 Serb refugees from Croatia in Yugoslavia, and several tens of thousands in the Bosnian Serb republic and in the West.
According to official Croatian figures, about 40,000 ethnic Serbs have returned to Croatia so far.
At that rate, it would take mor than 30 years for all the refugees to return - assuming, of course, that they wanted to.
There are several reasons for the slow rate of returns, including bureaucratic obstacles on the part of the Croatian authorities, lack of housing and jobs, and often hostility from local Croats who blame ethnic Serbs for triggering the conflict which caused so much bloodshed in the first half of the 1990s.
Now Croatia's incoming President Stipe Mesic has signalled that Zagreb's attitude is going to change.
Until now Croatia has insisted that refugees wishing to return should first acquire Croatian citizenship - a long and tortuous process.
But in an interview with the opposition-controlled Studio B television in Belgrade, Mr Mesic implied that the nationality or citizenship issue was irrelevant.
Nationality 'not an issue'
"For me there are only refugees, and the question of their nationality is not an issue. All refugees are victims of a war which they had not caused and they should return to their homes," he said.
The fact that Mr Mesic made these remarks on the refugees just two days after his election on Monday is significant.
It shows that Croatia's new president is standing by his election promises - and, in this case by a pledge that is particularly important for improving Croatia's image around the world.
The shift in the official Croatian approach to refugee returns could have potentially far-reaching consequences not just for Croatia but also for several other countries in the region, above all, Bosnia and Serbia.
But there are still many obstacles on the road to dealing with the refugee problem.
Though much of the hostility felt by many Croats towards Serbs has eased, any large-scale return of Serb refugees could provoke a backlash.
As the new Croatian Government is about to tackle the country's 20% unemployment rate, most returning Serbs would be facing bleak job prospects.
Many homes remain destroyed - so much so that there are still thousands of Croatian refugees who have not been able to return to their previous places of abode in eastern Slavonia.
There is also the problem of tens of thousands of Bosnian Croats who have taken refuge in Croatia - living often in the former homes of Serb refugees - who have not been able to return to the Bosnian Serb republic.
Any substantial refugee return to Croatia would need to be linked to economic expansion, a more ambitious reconstruction programme and to a three-way movement of refugees that would involve Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.
Well over a million refugees have yet to return to their home in Bosnia.
Even if the political and economic constraints are removed, it is open to doubt as to how many Serbs would wish to go back to Croatia.
Many have settled down in their new homes and others have said they would never want to live under Croatian rule.
It will be up to Zagreb to demonstrate that Croatia is once again a country for all its nationalities.