Almost 25 years after the end of the war and six years since its European Union membership Croatia is still unable to re-integrate its declining Serb population. Serbs face intolerance, economic obstacles and discrimination. Croatian nationalists target them as an inconvenient reminder that their exclusive narrative is just a myth. At the same time, they use the Serbs as the perfect “enemy” in order to preserve the dominant status of ethno-nationalism. Croatia therefore fails to respect the highest internationally recognized minority rights to which it repeatedly committed itself in the early days of its independence and during the EU integrations process.
Yugoslavia consisted of six republics, one of them Croatia, and two autonomous provinces. Various groups’ ethno-nationalisms reinforced one another, led to intra-state security dilemmas and resulted in the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. Croatia’s efforts at seceding from Yugoslavia led to conflicts with its Serb population and the creation of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina which was supported by the Yugoslav People’s Army. The war started in summer 1991. The situation stabilized at the beginning of 1992, when a ceasefire came into force- and United Nations blue helmets were deployed.
Croatia gained international recognition but a large part of its territory remained under control of the Republic of Serbian Krajina. In May and August 1995, frustrated by protracted and futile diplomatic efforts at negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement, Croatia’s government initiated two military operations which led to its military victory and the expulsion of over 200,000 Serbs. As agreed in the 1995 Erdut Agreement, Eastern Slavonia, the last region controlled by Serb rebels, was reintegrated peacefully via transitional administration by the United Nations by 1998. Since then, Serbs have no longer been such a politically relevant factor as before. More than 20,000 people died in the war.
The Serbs’ demographic and legal situation
The Serb community in Croatia dropped from 581,663 or 12.16% in 1991 to 186,633 or 4.36% in 2011 with a tendency of further decline. The number of Serbs in 1991 may have been a bit larger, as there were 106,041 Yugoslavs. By 2011, they practically disappeared with only 331 declaring themselves as Yugoslavs. For Dejan Jović the disappearance of Yugoslavs is one symptom of imposing a uniform nationalist identity in Croatia.
The international community conditioned not just the 1992 recognition of Croatia’s independence but also the subsequent post-war reintegration of Eastern Slavonia and EU membership on elaborate provisions of minority rights. Croatia is a signatory of a number of international minority rights mechanisms. The Constitutional Act on the Rights of National Minorities from 2002, which is still in force, was one of the first conditions on Croatia’s paths towards membership in the European Union (EU).
The Act provides a set of cultural-autonomy and equal treatment guarantees including equal co-official usage of minority language in all municipalities and towns in which a minority constitute at least one third of the population, freedom of association, proportional representation in all public institutions and levels of government and cross-border cooperation rights.
As the Act is the result of international conditioning, its implementation often depends on external pressure and not on needs arising from the socio-economic position of Serbs. In 2013, efforts by the then Social Democratic-led government at implementing the Act’s requirements in Vukovar in Eastern Slavonia triggered widespread nationalist demonstrations which were instrumental in bringing nationalists back to power.
The Dire Socio-Economic Position of the Serbian Community
Demographically, economically and socially devastated, the Serb community cannot pose any threat to the state. An analysis by Zoran Šućur found that, in 2009, 47% of Croatian Serbs lived in households with a low income compared to 25% of ethnic Croats and 29% of other minorities (except Roma). Economic inequality marked by unemployment or underemployment and the state’s infrastructural investments negligence towards predominantly Serb settlements is continually present.
In 2017, Milorad Pupovac, President of the Serb National Council (SNV), underlined the “illustrative case” of the Serb village Islam Grčki which after the war was not re-connected to the water system, even though it is on the same water route like the Croat villages Smilčić and Islam Latinski. The failure to re-connect villages to the electric network is another example. 2012 Serb Democratic Forum research on proportional employment discovered that with the partial exception of Eastern Slavonia there was significant underrepresentation of Serbs among public sector employees with extreme cases such as Gvozd standing out where Serbs made 58% of the local population but only 14% of public sector employees.
The fact that all eight minority members of the parliament, including three Serbs, support the current government enabled them in 2018 to push for the creation of a funding program for underdeveloped municipalities inhabited by minority communities worth 30 million Kuna (slightly over 4 million €). It will primarily benefit Serb municipalities, as all ten least developed municipalities have a Serb majority. This underlines to what extent a cooperative attitude by the minorities is required for any improvement of their socio-economic situation.
While the economic situation may be the most pressing issue for most Serb citizens, other challenges such as the social distance and intolerance by a considerable part of the majority population also create anxieties about the future. The Institute for Social Research in Zagreb found out that 40% of high school graduates in Zagreb and Zagreb County believe that minorities would support the enemies of Croatia in case of war, while 50% believe that some minorities will never adapt to values of Croatian culture. In 2018, the same institute’s research conducted together with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung on 1,500 students concluded that only 23% support minority linguistic rights such as those in Vukovar, only 30% believe that there are conditions for Serb and Croat coexistence, while 41% would prevent any prosecution of war crimes committed by Croats.
In its bulletin for 2017, the SNV reported 393 events of ethnic intolerance including revisionism related to World War II, insults, threats, physical attacks, destruction of private property or public monuments,… Prominent cases included placing a plaque with the fascist Ustashe greeting “Za dom spremni” (“Ready for the Homeland”) next to the memorial site of the Jasenovac Death Camp. Frequent shouts of “Kill Serbs!” are heard during sports events, and xenophobic outbursts in national and local media have even led to the temporary suspension of media licenses. This targeting of the wrecked Serb community is the result of the fact that it ended up in the crossfire over the over Croatia’s identity within the Croatian society.
Croatia is increasingly divided between the government and its nationalist basis views on one side and the Serbs, other minorities and many progressive anti-nationalist Croats on the other side. The government’s fear and appeasement of its nationalist basis and EU’s partial inability to ensure liberal values in Croatia creates the societal conflict and polarization which is expressed through arguments over history.
A first point of division are the nationalist elites’ efforts at reinterpreting positively the fascist World War II Croatian state, at underplaying or denying the Ustashe genocide on Serbs, Roma and Jews and at diminishing the role of Yugoslav Partisans. Further disagreements relate to the Socialist Yugoslavia. The dominant nationalist ideology presents it as a totalitarian state and anachronistically put it behind the Iron Curtain, while the other side underlines Yugoslavia’s comparative openness and prominent role in the Cold War diplomacy. Modern Croatia constructed its identity in explicit opposition to the idea of a shared South Slavic (i.e. Yugoslav) destiny with Article 142 of the constitution explicitly prohibiting it and by that denying an important element of the Croatian social and cultural history. Finally, the dominant ideology interprets the 1991-1995 war as the history’s defining and culminating point. The other side sees it as a tragic event due to the war crimes and destruction, wartime privatization which destroyed the economy and standards of living and ethnic separation.
Croatian nationalist elites present minorities in general and the scattered Serbs and almost non-existent Yugoslavs in particular as an internal danger to the state. Since 2013 nationalist elites enjoy increased freedom to do so as with the end of EU membership negotiations, the international community lost the strongest mechanism to hold Croatia accountable to its minority rights commitments. The nationalist elites use minority groups as scapegoats to deviate from their own failure to build a modern and prosperous state. They see Croatia’s Serb community as a useful enemy, even though it symbolizes a culturally diverse history of Croatia different from the official myth. It is likely that the Serbs in Croatia and many other post-Yugoslav minorities will remain the unwanted “other” used as a negative reference point for nationalists to control dissenting voices within their own groups. Unwilling to alienate cooperative Croatian elites and without effective options to improve the situation, the EU is so far mostly tolerating this state of affairs.