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Making up for lost time

Ivica Racan describes the revolution that has taken place in Croatian policy this year and his aspirations for the future.

The transition from authoritarian rule to democracy is fraught with danger in any country. It can be made easier, however, with international help. This is why membership of the Partnership for Peace is so important to Croatia and why my country aspires to join both NATO and the European Union.

Ivica Racan is prime minister of Croatia. (NATO photo - 11Kb)

Since coming to power in January of this year, my government has charted a very different course from that of its predecessor. Having embarked on a wide-ranging reform programme, the years ahead will likely be difficult. In many ways, Croatia is now on a similar course to that charted some 25 years ago by Spain and Portugal. Today, both of these countries are prosperous democracies, active members of both NATO and the European Union, and an inspiration. We aim to emulate their achievements, to participate actively in the Partnership for Peace and to contribute to finding durable solutions in southeastern Europe and beyond.

Under the former regime of the late President Franjo Tudjman, Croatia was at loggerheads both with its neighbours and the wider international community. The principal points of conflict were policies towards Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia), relations with the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague (the Tribunal), and attitudes towards the return of Serb refugees to Croatia. These are no longer issues.

Whereas certain individuals in the former ruling party and Tudjman himself clearly coveted parts of Bosnia, my government respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our neighbour. Indeed, my colleagues and I were outspoken critics of Tudjmans policies towards Bosnia both during and after the Bosnian war, believing that a functioning and successful Bosnian state was and is in Croatias national interest. We are therefore committed to the Dayton peace process and intend to contribute to the reconstruction of a Bosnia that can be a home to all its peoples.

Since coming into office, we have stopped transferring soldiers directly between the Croatian Armed Forces and the Croat Defence Council, the Bosnian Croat component of the Bosnian Federations Armed Forces. We have also severed direct communications and control links between the two militaries. Moreover, since signing a Financial Assistance Agreement with the Bosnian Federation in May, financial transfers between Croatia and the Federations defence ministry have become transparent.

Croatia is not, however, abandoning the Bosnian Croats. It is simply looking to find durable, long-term solutions that balance their legitimate interests with those of a viable Bosnian state and of the countrys Serb and Bosniac communities. Croatia will continue to pay military pensions and disability allowances to Bosnian Croats, but these payments will in future either be made via the appropriate federal institutions or paid directly to beneficiaries in as open a manner as possible. They will no longer be channelled through shady, parallel structures.

The change of regime in Zagreb and the reversal of Tudjmans policies towards Bosnia has already borne some fruit in the recent Bosnian municipal elections with gains for multi-ethnic parties. Although nationalists remain powerful, their support base is crumbling. Hopefully, an irreversible trend has been set so that, in time, Bosnians of all ethnic groups will follow the Croatian example and reject the bankrupt nationalism, which has blighted all their lives for the past decade.

Bosnian society cannot, however, be rebuilt without reconciliation. Here, the Tribunal has a vital role to play. For guilt is individual, not collective. Only when those individuals responsible for the excesses of the wars of Yugoslav dissolution are forced to account for their actions, can the healing process properly begin.

Crimes were committed on all sides, including by Croats. In order to help the Tribunal, my government has again reversed the policy of the former regime and intends to hand over indictees, make available all relevant documents and support investigations on Croatian territory. In March, Bosnian Croat indictee, Mladan Tuta Naletilic, was extradited to The Hague. In April, the lower house of the Croatian parliament endorsed a declaration on cooperation with the Tribunal. Since then, Croatia has been assisting the investigations of a forensic team from The Hague.

One reason Croatia is so eager to assist the Tribunal is to ensure that when an individual is tried, all evidence is available, both to the prosecution and to the defence, so that the accused receives a fair trial. Only in this way, will justice be done and be seen to be done. Since Croatias former regime refused to cooperate fully with the Tribunal and failed to hand over documents, there is a possibility that in some cases, in particular the 45-year prison term given to Bosnian Croat General Tihomir Blaskic, the Tribunal did not have the information necessary to make the right decision.

While the Tribunal has helped build a framework for reconciliation, it remains remote from its beneficiaries, the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. Ultimately, reconciliation is up to us and the healing process has to take place within the region. For this reason, we hope that in the future war crimes trials can be held in Croatia, as well as elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia.

Reconciliation will not take place unless and until those who have been forced from their homes in the war are able to return. My government has therefore made the return of refugees and displaced persons a priority. We have already adopted a joint declaration on refugee return with Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb dominated part of Bosnia, hoping to kick-start the return process throughout the region. At the same time, together with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), we have developed a project for the return of 16 500 displaced persons to Croatia. With funding pledged at the Stability Pacts regional finance conference in March, we can commit ourselves to its implementation.

My government will never insist on reciprocity that is an identical number of Croat returnees as returnees of other ethnicities nor will it knowingly discriminate against returning Serbs. A Croatian citizen is a Croatian citizen, irrespective of his or her ethnic origins, and entitled to the full protection of equitable law. To this end, we have initiated a process of amending all discriminatory legislation on the principles of the inviolability of private property and the equality of all citizens before the law.

The Croatian war is recent and holds bitter memories. At the same time, our economy is depressed, unemployment is high and there are severe constraints on government spending. As a result, some in Croatia may resent aid being paid to returning Serbs. That will not, however, alter our policies. Already in June, we adopted laws granting Serbs equal access to reconstruction funds and our courts have punished individuals who have desecrated Serb monuments.

Assisting Serb returns to Croatia will hopefully help improve relations with our neighbours, including the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Genuine normalisation of relations will, however, not be possible as long as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power and the attitudes and mindset that he has helped inculcate continue to prevail. Serbias problems go well beyond Milosevic. Until Serbian society comes to terms with its recent past, it will remain an international pariah and lasting peace and stability in both Kosovo and south-eastern Europe will likely prove elusive.

Talk of rebuilding some sort of new Yugoslavia and bringing Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia back together is nave. That said, the various countries of the region could work together. Indeed, we intend to demonstrate this in the framework of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, which we also view as the path towards membership of the European Union.

In addition to joining the Partnership for Peace, Croatia has this year become an associate member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and signed 16 bilateral military cooperation agreements, eight of which are with NATO countries. These new links should enable us to work together with partners to find solutions and help us reform and restructure our own armed forces.

Establishing democratic control over the armed forces and defence reforms are mutually reinforcing efforts and therefore need to be tackled together. New legislation is being prepared to expand parliaments over-sight of the military, a corps of civilian defence experts is being created, and defence standards and procedures designed to increase transparency are being introduced.

The drive to reform Croatian society is part of the drive to integrate Croatia into Western Europe. As a result of war and later mismanagement, Croatia slipped down the league table of countries aspiring to join both NATO and the European Union. But now, we are making up for lost time and hope to follow the trail blazed by countries like Spain and Portugal. What is good for Croatia, is good for all Croatian citizens, irrespective of their ethnic origins, is good for southeastern Europe and for the Euro-Atlantic community beyond.

Read more: balkans, Croatia
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