The Croatian central government in Zagreb has in recent years made welcome gestures toward the Serb minority and has used inclusive language when speaking on inter-ethnic issues.146 The central government employs fifteen Serbs as advisors or assistant ministers, which helps relations with the Serb minority. In 2005, the government also enacted laws of some significance for the employment of minorities.

It is tempting to ascribe the problems regarding return and reintegration of Croatian Serbs to obstructionism at the local level, which the central government is allegedly unable to curb. It is increasingly apparent, however, that Zagreb’s symbolic gestures and limited improvements in the law have been insufficient to address the dire problems facing Serb returnees. There is insufficient political will behind the government’s policies to deliver major improvements in the security situation, housing, infrastructure, and employment of Serb returnees. There is little in the messages from Zagreb that would make local officials believe that facilitating Serb return and reintegration is genuinely important.

A Serb member of the local executive board (poglavarstvo) in a town in Senjsko-Lička county, where Serbs participate in the ruling coalition dominated by a Croat political party, described the attitude of his colleagues in the executive board as follows:

They are afraid that, if they support greater employment of Serbs in local administration and public services, they will be rebuked from their party hierarchy. If they take measures improving the status of the Serbs, they are taking a risk. If they take no such measures, they are not taking any risk. If they recognized a clear message from Zagreb that provisions of the constitutional law on national minorities about employment should be implemented, they would implement them.147

Examples illustrating the failure of the central government to overcome local inertia on improving human rights for Serbs include:

  • The failure to consistently condemn ethnic incidents in strong and unequivocal terms;
  • The failure to provide leadership to local, county, and state administration in improving the representation of Serbs in employment in the sectors specified by the Constitutional Law on National Minorities;
  • The absence of unequivocal public statements about the illegal use of Serb-owned agricultural land in the Benkovac area.

Although Croatia has been making significant economic and political steps in the direction that leads to EU membership, it has yet to demonstrate its commitment to respect fully the human rights of all its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity. It is crucial that the EU use its influence through the accession process to ensure that Croatia makes progress in removing the remaining obstacles to return and reintegration of Serb refugees, and to ensure that all persons in Croatia enjoy equal treatment by the state, irrespective of their ethnicity or other characteristics.

146 Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and the Speaker of Parliament Vladimir Šeks, both also the leading persons in the Croatian Democratic Union, have been regularly extending Christmas greetings to Orthodox Serbs since 2004. These symbolic gestures have been widely understood as a major change in the image of the formerly extreme nationalist party.

147 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with “D.M.”, June 6, 2006.