Croatia: Free elections, but for whom? 

By Jan Oberg

TFF PressInfo 22 – April 24, 1997 – originally published here.

Important actors have considered the recent Croatian election free and fair in spite of the fact that some 250,000 Serb-Croat citizens could not vote in their home country.

These Serbs fled from Croatia during its military operations in 1995 – the largest single case of ethnic cleansing during the wars. They are refugees in Bosnia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, sometimes called “expellees,” but are legitimate citizens of Croatia.

The U.S., EU governments, OSCE, the Council of Europe and human rights organisations could have done politically in Croatia what they did in Bosnia, namely insist on refugees abroad being given an opportunity to influence the future of their homeland to which they want to return.

The quite young state of Croatia had hardly just brushed off such a good advise from president Clinton (or the very active, human rights-concerned U.S. ambassa-dor to Croatia, Peter Galbraith), from president Chirac, prime minister Major or chancellor Kohl and neither from, for instance, World Bank president Wolfensohn.

If the international community had required this of Croatia it could have been credited for having, for once, a constructive and principled policy.

If Croatia had provided such an opportunity – under pressure or, better, by its own initiative – it would have proved its commitment to a future of social peace, multi-ethnicity and democracy. Now both missed that major opportunity. One may also wonder how these voters could have changed the election result,” says TFF director Jan Øberg.

“The Dayton Agreement stipulated that any citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina whose name appears on the 1991 census should be eligible to vote. Much was done throughout Europe to secure that refugees from the tragic war in Bosnia could vote while abroad.

While Serbian citizens were prevented from casting their vote, it deserves mention that many Croats from Bosnia-Herzegovina who are technically citizens of that republic are registered as voters also in Croatia and could vote by going to Croatia on election day. Furthermore and paradoxically, the Croatian state seems more interested in rehabilitating and getting back certain World War II leaders than getting back its own citizens, which does not bode well for the future.

Of course, there is no Dayton agreement for Croatia; and its election law stipulates that voters must be present in the country to vote. But this is not a legal matter. It is an essentially political issue – about human rights, freedom and reconciliation.

It is true that citizens must have Croatian documents to be able to vote, but that could have been arranged in advance by relevant international organisations. The international community could have told Croatia to treat its citizens the same way as e.g. Croats were treated in the Bosnian election. And Croatia could have made this gesture to improve its already tainted human rights record, as evidenced by UN rapporteur Ms Elizabeth Rehn in her reports.

So, yet another sad example from the Balkans of everyone losing in terms of morals and the prospect for democracy and peaceful co-existence – the international community, the Croatian government, the ordinary citizens,” Jan Øberg concludes.

 

April 24, 1997

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