ICG Bosnia Project, 28 June, 1996
The United Nations mission continues to progress toward the final reintegration of Eastern Slavonia into Croatia, much as we previously reported. (See: United Nations Transition Authority in Eastern Slavonia: First Follow-Up Assessment, April 1996.)
In the main, the Serbs of Eastern Slavonia seem resigned to the reality of the impending changes. The resignation, however, is accompanied by widespread anxiety. If this anxiety is not allayed, it could produce a mass exodus of Serbs of Eastern Slavonia, especially of those Serbs who have already been displaced from their homes elsewhere in Croatia. There is a danger that, through its successful efforts to establish Croatian authority in Eastern Slavonia, UNTAES might be effecting the ''soft'' ethnic cleansing of the region for Croatian nationalists whose goal is to reduce the number of Serbs in Croatia to a minimum. To avoid the possibility of this outcome, more must be done to mitigate the fears of the Serbs in Eastern Slavonia. There should be better dissemination of information from UNTAES about the transition. The Croatian Government should be urged to take steps aimed at allaying Serb fears. A voluntary return of the displaced Serbs to their original homes elsewhere in Croatia must be undertaken.
The United Nations transition administrator, Jacques Klein, has set 1 July 1997 as the deadline for the final handover of authority in Eastern Slavonia to the Croatian Government. Croatia's president, Franjo Tudjman, has insisted on sticking to the original 12-month transition timeframe, which would require the completion of the handover in January 1997; Croatian Government officials indicated to the team that any delay beyond March 1997 would be unacceptable. Croatian transition officials contend that Serb political leaders in Eastern Slavonia are dragging out the transition process by not showing up at meetings and frequently reshuffling the members of the Serb transition team for no apparent reason. Serb officials in Eastern Slavonia have requested a 12-month extension of the timetable, which would push its completion back to January 1998.
Mr. Klein says Croatian and Serb officials are equally to blame for delays in the transition. His implementation timetable, which is a compromise between the Serb and Croatian positions, makes sense and should be pursued.
The United Nations military force was deployed on time in Eastern Slavonia and declared operational by the force commander, Major General J.M. Schoups, in early May. Although the demilitarisation of local Serb militia forces was well underway prior to the arrival of the international military force, it immediately established its credibility by expelling the most-visible paramilitary/criminal groups in the area (''The Jumping Snakes,'' ''Scorpions,'' et al.) and taking over the oil field these groups once controlled and exploited for personal financial gain. The United Nations military force plans to carry out searches for weaponry during the first week of July to determine the completeness of the demilitarisation.
UNTAES has exerted its authority in many areas. The local oil-production facilities have reopened under UNTAES management. Progress is being made in restoring damaged infrastructure as well as electricity and telephone service. Railways are expected to begin operating in July. More than 80 percent of the farmland in Eastern Slavonia has been planted. (Croatian and United Nations officials cite this fact to support their assertions that most Serbs will stay in the region once the handover is made. Serbs actually harvesting this season's first crops, however, seemed confident they would reap their harvest before next year's deadline for the turnover and said they would leave the area when it comes under Croatia's control.) In July, UNTAES will assume responsibility for registering motor vehicles, a process which should further reduce the presence of criminal gangs whose members have a greater interest in keeping their stolen cars than in remaining in Eastern Slavonia during, and clearly after, the transition period. Efforts have been undertaken to halt the export of timber and other raw materials to Serbia.
Representatives from local humanitarian organisations spoke of projects aimed at returning home Serbs who were driven from their villages in Western Slavonia during a Croatian army attack in April 1995. The organisers of these projects assert that Croats in Western Slavonia, specifically inhabitants of the town of Pakrac, want their Serb neighbours to return. These projects are still in a nascent state and their final success, which will probably be determined at least in part by the funding they attract, cannot be predicted.
The investigation team is perplexed as to why the commander of the United Nations military force has not received the small amount of funds necessary to contract and/or employ local people to carry out activities like de-mining and providing security for the oil fields.
We are encouraged by the Croatian Government's expressed intent not to terminate the employment of local Serbs working in industries in Eastern Slavonia after the transition period is completed. For the present, of course, these people retain their jobs under UNTAES authority.
The United Nations administrator and his staff have organised town hall meetings in villages across Eastern Slavonia to explain the transition process to the Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Slovaks and members of other ethnic groups who choose to attend. Additionally, an UNTAES bulletin in the local language and alphabets is circulated. In light of the results of our discussions with local Serbs, however, it is clear that UNTAES must place additional emphasis on informing Serbs about the transition. This activity, perhaps more than any other, can contribute to overcoming uncertainties that help fuel the deep-seated fear in the Serb community.
Serbs interviewed said they were all anxious about their future in Eastern Slavonia. Most Serbs, and especially parents with school-age children, said they would move to Serbia, the Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia or elsewhere rather than live under the Croatian Government's authority; some Serbs said they would stay in Eastern Slavonia if they were given the chance to earn a living, receive their pensions and enjoy civil rights. A few indigenous Serbs, as opposed to the displaced Serbs who have settled in the region, said they had already begun preparing their departure; displaced persons said they had very little to pack up and would not need much time to leave when the time comes. Some of the indigenous Serbs said they would try to sell their homes and land and use the money to rebuild their lives in Serbia or elsewhere.
All of the Serbs interviewed said they knew little or nothing about the nuts and bolts of the transition plan or what ultimate outcome would be beyond the fact that Croatian authority would be established. The Serbs interviewed said that they now enjoy no political representation and that the present Serb authorities, who were not elected, represented themselves rather than the interests of the population. Not surprisingly, none of the Serbs interviewed had anything good to say about the governments in Croatia or in Serbia. The problem with Franjo Tudjman and the HDZ government in Croatia, they said, was one of credibility and trust. Most Serbs interviewed said it would be impossible for them to regain any faith in Mr. Tudjman and a Government they view as a direct descendant of the Ustashe regime that sent so many Serbs to their graves during World War II.
Despite the formidable United Nations presence in Eastern Slavonia and the progress achieved in the work of the international authorities implementing the transition agreed to in the Zagreb-Erdut agreement of January 1996, there remains, in our view, a clear danger that thousands of Serbs, including members of the indigenous population of Eastern Slavonia who had little to do with the fighting in 1991, will flee the region. There seems to be little effort by the Croatian government to avert this exodus by allaying the fears of the region's Serbs and apparently not enough pressure by the broader international community on the Croatian government to take action to avert it. There are serious grounds to believe that the Croatian Government has no intention of encouraging members of the indigenous Serb population of Eastern Slavonia to remain in their houses for the long run.
More information, disseminated through the press, the broadcast media and group gatherings, must be provided by the UNTAES authorities about the transition. The gist of the information provided should focus on the Serbs' rights under the transition agreement and Croatian law. Printed materials should be disseminated providing not only the texts of the appropriate agreements and laws, but descriptions, in plain language, (i.e., the ekavski dialect of the Serbo-Croatian language and Cyrillic script) of what the agreements and laws actually mean. Concrete steps being undertaken by the transitional authorities should be spelled out in black and white.
This material should also spell out the rights of the Serb refugees in the region, especially their right to return to their homes elsewhere in Croatia as well as any rights they may have under Croatian law to continue to occupy temporarily Croat-owned houses in Eastern Slavonia.
More pressure should also be applied on Mr. Tudjman and the Croatian Government to extend an olive branch to the Serbs in Croatia. This should not in any way be seen as a diminishing of Croatia's sovereignty in the region or its right to reassume administrative control over it. Rather it should be seen as a way of bringing the Croatian authorities to take steps aimed at assuaging the fears of the Serbs.
The Croatian Government might be able to mitigate the Serbs' fears in the field of education, specifically with the distribution of the school texts printed in the Cyrillic script. (The Croatian Ministry of Education prepared Cyrillic textbooks in the summer of 1990 and presented them to members of the international media to vouch for their promises to allow the Serbs a broad spectrum of cultural autonomy.)
Without discrimination based on national origin, the Croatian government should see to the payment of pensions to Serbs in Eastern Slavonia in a way that does not require those persons who have a vested right to those pensions to declare themselves to be citizens of Croatia. This in no way effects the issue of Croatian sovereignty.