Croatia: Homeless Serbs denied compensation

Originally published
Law preventing Serbs from claiming damages for homes destroyed in the war likely to anger the West.
By Drago Hedl in Osijek (BCR No 408, 20-Feb-03)

Minority Serbs seeking payment for property damaged by the army and police during the war may have little prospect of being reimbursed if parliament approves new legislation next week.

The bill will allow citizens injured in the conflict to apply for compensation, but closes the door on property claims - something that's bound to anger the international community and possibly threaten Zagreb's bid for membership of the European Union.

Parliament abolished legislation in 1996 that allowed citizens to seek reimbursement for real estate deliberately destroyed by members of the Croatian army and police.

And three years later the assembly effectively terminated all proceedings related to such claims made before 1996.

The authorities said then that they would introduce a new law that would determine responsibility for damaged or destroyed property - but they've yet to deliver on their pledge.

According to the international observes, the new legislation will effectively end property compensation claims for the Croatian Serbs.

And western officials have already suggested that they will take a tough line with Zagreb if this proves to be the case.

"It is of utmost importance to ensure the resumption of all trial proceedings involving the citizens who filed lawsuits for damages under the old legislation," said Alessandro Fracassetti, OSCE mission spokesman in Zagreb.

The head of the OSCE mission in Croatia, Peter Semneby, said, "Court decisions related to financial claims for destroyed property should not be terminated, as this is not in compliance with the international legal obligations of the state of Croatia."

The draft law, which the government is expected to place before the parliament next week, would not allow compensation for ruined property, even though in many cases the Croatian army and the police were responsible, diplomatic sources say.

Only citizens who received physical injuries or the families of people killed would be entitled to claim for damages.

At a time when officials here are trying to burnish their country's image in their bid for EU membership, the bill's shortcomings highlights the trouble the government is having addressing the rights of its minorities.

Observers say the administration is pressing for the legislative changes because it fears compensating Serbs for destroyed property would be exploited by right wingers and result in it losing votes - especially amongst Croatian refugees still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt - in elections expected later this year.

But in pandering to right-wingers, Prime Minister Ivica Racan risks undermining the country's bid for EU membership.

About 20,000 houses, many of them belonging to Serbs, were deliberately burnt down or shelled during the war between 1991 and 1996, according to the estimates of various non-governmental organisations in Croatia.

Many Serb properties were destroyed by the Croatian army and police, as a warning to other members of the community of what might happen to them if they did not flee Croatia.

Most of the minority's homes however, were ruined in Croatian military offensives in May and August 1995, when entire villages were burnt down.

"The government's decision not to pay damages for deliberately burnt or shelled houses is a continuation of Tudjman's policy of discrimination towards minorities," said Croatian lawyer Mario Nobilo, who represents about 20 ethnic Serbs seeking compensation.

Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is considering appeals by several dozen members of the community whose attempts at reimbursement have failed.

The court has already ruled in favour of one of the 50 cases, ordering Croatia to pay 10,000 euro in damages to the Kutic family from Bjelovar whose house was destroyed in 1991.

At the same time, the court called on the Zagreb authorities to amend legislation on compensation by mid-March this year.

Croatian justice minister Ingrid Anticevic-Marinovic promised last spring during a visit by the court's chairman Luzius Wildhaber that Zagreb would reinstate the provision abolished in 1996.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor