LETTER : Croatian law on minorities

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The Independent Online
From Dr Martyn Rady

Sir: The reincorporation of Western Slavonia within Croatian jurisdiction has been accompanied by the flight of most of the region's Serbs. Western Slavonia, having experienced two rounds of ethnic cleansing in the last four years, is presently a wilderness. Given the political will, the region could, however, provide an opportunity for confidence-building between the national communities in former Yugoslavia and so contribute by its example towards a resolution of the larger conflict.

The Croatian law on minorities, passed by the Croatian parliament in 1992, is one of the most far-reaching in Europe. In areas where a national minority constitutes more than 50 per cent of the local population, the 1992 law lays down a right of special status and of administrative autonomy, including the deployment of police drawn from the minority community. The law, however, bases the 50 per cent rule on the municipality. Western Slavonia, where, according to the relevant pre-war census, none of the municipalities passes the 50 per cent threshold, is thus excluded from its provisions.

The weight given to the municipality in the 1992 law is unduly restrictive. Most of the villages of Western Slavonia have not historically been mixed. At a sub-municipal level, as for instance in the Pakrac region, the minority population was sufficiently concentrated to fulfil the criterion of an absolute majority in a number of localities.

The Croatian government should be encouraged to permit refugees from Western Slavonia, both the Croats who fled in 1991 and the Serbs over the last few weeks, to return to their homes. In those communities where the Serb minority population constitutes an absolute majority, an award of special status should be made permitting rights of autonomy in line with the provisions of the 1992 law.

The war in former Yugoslavia may be interpreted as originating out of the conflict between the rival claims of state integrity and of national self-determination. Although unsatisfactory from a strictly juridical point of view, the grant of autonomy may be considered a compromise between these two principles. It has been much discussed in the past.

If now implemented and seen to work, autonomy might offer a way out of the present political impasse in other parts of former Yugoslavia.

Yours faithfully,

MARTYN RADY

Director of Studies

Centre for the Study

of Minorities

School of Slavonic and

East European Studies

University of London

London, WC1

7 May

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