The round table discussion was organised by the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies and the Croatian Heritage Foundation with the support of the State Office for Croats Abroad

A round table on The Significance of the Croatian National Minority in Serbia and the Serbian National Minority in Croatia in European Integration and Building Stability in Southeast Europe pooled political representatives and academics of the Croatians in Serbia and Serbians in Croatia in Zagreb on the 22nd of November to discuss the issues facing the minority communities in the two countries.

Tomislav Žigmanov, a member of parliament in the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, noted that Serbia remains a country of delayed and incomplete transition, as is evident from the fact that it is the last to have entered to process of negotiating its possible membership in the European Union. This means, he added, that Serbia has an incomplete legal structure and a deficit when it comes to minority policy issues, which also pertains to the status of the Croatian community – in this post-conflict society the Croatian community continues to face numerous problems, such as the unwillingness of the country to face its past policies and the fact that there is still not a single public monument to the victimisation of Croatians in Serbia.

The Croatian community in Serbia is defined by its exclusion from the decision-making process as the country has yet to resolve the issue of political representation, with the current representation limited by the parliament entrance threshold that is suited to larger minority groups, such as the Bosniaks and Hungarians, and those with greater territorial compactness, such as the Albanian community. All other minorities, Žigmanov notes, are unable to achieve appropriate representation, which leads to a high rate of under-representation of the Croatian community in the national administration. One data point shows that there are five times less members of the Croatian community in the Serbian police force.

When it comes to political representation, Žigmanov warns that among the two hundred people appointed to the assembly of the City of Subotica, its commissions and expert bodies, there are less that two percent Croatians. This, he says, shows the great disproportion in comparison to the portion of the population they constitute. This level of radical and significant exclusion has not previously been seen since the 1990s and is associated with the issue of a lack of visibility in the public sphere.

Even when it comes to ethnically motivated violence towards Croatians in Serbia and hate speech, it appears that there is an entire strategy of silence. The latest case involving the beating of a young man in Apatin can serve as a model example of the media glossing over this ethnic incident, Žigmanov says.

Although he does note that there has been some progress in minority rights, there is still a certain derogation of rights. The unsuccessful privatisation of radio Subotica, for example, has seen the phasing out of the three-hour daily Croatian language programme. Žigmanov notes that the forty or so Croatian culture associations receive about five hundred thousand euros in assistance, which is under ten euro per ethnic Croatian citizen, and far below the amount received by the Serbian community in Croatia. He also points to the issue of identity intervention, i.e. the “Bunjevo issue” where a negative policy is in force with regard to the Croatian community in favour of a spurious Bunjevo identity.

In terms of Serbia’s dedication to an effort to join the European Union, Žigmanov says that he is often witness to a gap between what is voiced by government representatives in terms of whether or not the EU is their sole strategic route. The prime minister will say it is; the foreign minister will observe that Brussels will not always determine Serbia’s course of action; and the Serbian president will note that Moscow is as important a place as Brussels.

This creates not only a schizophrenic situation in the public sphere, but also opens the way to reducing the importance of the process, concludes Žigmanov, adding that the leadership of the Croatian community supports Serbia’s European path as it can lead to numerous benefits, including the rule of law.

The deputy president of the Serb National Council in Croatia Saša Milošević notes that it can freely be said that relations between Serbia and Croatia are at their lowest point since the war.

Constant accusations towards the other side, a lack of understanding and will to understand the other side are frequently the main characteristics of relations between the two countries – something he feels has been created by politicians and the media, and now supported by pillars of civil society such as veterans’ groups and the church.

“This strongly antagonistic sentiment towards neighbours has become dominant in both societies,” Milošević notes, adding that he does not see societal forces that could or would know how to address this in the near future.

Serbs, he contends, are still discriminated against in many spheres of life in Croatia and discouraged in taking advantage of their minority rights, even some of the most fundamental, or their use of these rights is extremely reduced and hampered, such as the use of language and script and education in the mother tongue.

Many difficult questions arising from the war have also not been resolved, he claims, including the return of people and property, the resolution of tenancy issues and the punishment of war crimes against Serbians.

Milošević feels that Croatian membership in the EU has not stimulated a resolution of the problems faced by Serbs in Croatia. Legislation that has provided a good solution to Serbian representation at all levels of the national administration has not helped resolve these issues, he says, and this level of representation has also been grounds for assertions that Serbians remain a privileged group in Croatia.

“It appears to me that we Serbians here and the Croatians in Serbia will always been between the millstones that are the relations between the two countries of origin. When relations are better, we can relax, but with every deterioration we are the first to be victimised,” Milošević said.

He notes that he feels that the time when the status of Serbs in Croatia was one of the top political issues has past, as there is no longer outside supervision or monitoring.

Mate Granić, the Croatian president’s special advisor on foreign policy, noted that minorities are the wealth of a society and that we need to, in our own country, fight to see minorities enjoy a higher level of protection, and equally to work to see that this level of protection is enjoyed by the Croatian minority communities in other countries.

In spite of the problems faced by the EU, such as the British exit, Granić is of the opinion that, for this broader region, it is best that it is part of the European Union, and as such Croatia will support the efforts of Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro to join the EU.

Granić notes that each of these countries needs to fulfil all of the conditions and to resolve open questions in bilateral dialogue. The issue of indictments also has to be finally resolved and Granić expressed his opinion that Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović and the new Croatian government would be successful in this endeavour.

The round table discussion was organised by the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies and the Croatian Heritage Foundation with the support of the State Office for Croats Abroad.

Photos by: Naida Šehović