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The election of a new government and president in Croatia at the start of 2000, following the death of President Franjo Tudjman, marked a turning point in Croatia's post-independence respect for human rights. Attempts in late 1999 by the then-ruling Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica, HDZ) to affect the outcome of the vote through control of electronic media, redistricting, and curbs on freedom of assembly led many observers to fear that President Tudjman was unwilling to relinquish power to the opposition. With the death of Tudjman on December 11, 1999, two weeks prior to the parliamentary elections, those fears remained untested, and the opposition coalition captured a large parliamentary majority in the January 3 vote. The resultant change in political culture was so swift that both candidates in the second round of voting for president on February 7 were from opposition parties.

The new government headed by Prime Minister Ivica Racan, and the incoming president Stipe Mesic, moved quickly to demonstrate their commitment to human rights and respect for Croatia's international obligations. On January 28, Foreign Minister Tonino Picula acknowledged that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had jurisdiction over Operation Storm, the controversial 1995 action against rebel Serbs that left several hundred thousand Croatian Serbs as refugees. On February 8, the government unveiled its legislative program, committing itself to reform state television, to uphold minority rights, and to carry out the legislative and administrative changes necessary to facilitate the return of Serb refugees. In a newpaper interview two days later, President Mesic invited all Serb refugees to return to Croatia. The new government submitted a U.S.$55 million proposal on February 21 to facilitate the return of 16,500 Croatian Serb refugees.

The government's human rights rhetoric was soon followed by concrete actions, notably in the area of cooperation with the ICTY, previously among the thorniest issues in Croatia's relations with the international community. On March 2, the ICTY deputy prosecutor announced that Croatia had acceded to its request to provide documentation related to Operation Storm and Operation Flash (another 1995 offensive against rebel Serbs). The transfer of Bosnian Croat war crimes suspect Mladen Naletilic, alias "Tuta," followed on March 21. In April, the government permitted ICTY investigators to examine the site of an alleged 1991 massacre of Serb civilians in the town of Gospic. By June, the ICTY prosecutor indicated that the organization had "full access" in Croatia. Further moves followed the August murder of Milan Levar, a Croatian veteran from Gospic present during the 1991 killings who had assisted the ICTY investigation. In early September, Croatian police arrested two Croatian army generals and ten others in connection with war crimes committed in Croatia and Bosnia. Ten suspects in Levar's murder were also arrested.

Considerable progress was made in legislative reform during the first session of the parliament. Key reforms included the April annulment of article 18 of the law on internal affairs, which gave the police wide powers of surveillance over citizens, new laws on minority languages and education on April 27, and the mostly positive changes to the constitutional law on human rights and the protection of minorities on May 11. The long-awaited amendments to the reconstruction law on June 1 and to the law on areas of special state concern on June 14, for the first time offered the prospect of equal treatment for displaced and refugee Serbs seeking to return to their homes in Croatia. At the time of writing, necessary amendments to reform the telecommunications law and a new bill to reform the state broadcaster were pending before the parliament.

Doubts about the composition of the new Constitutional Court were allayed by three important rulings in its first months. The court's decisions in February and April to strike articles on defamation and libel from the law on public information and the penal code greatly reduced the state's ability to suppress critical reporting. (Amendments to bring the penal code into line with the ruling passed their first parliamentary reading on June 1). In February the court revoked further provisions of the law on association upholding the previous court's stance on the law. In a crucial ruling for the restitution of tenancy rights, in May the court reversed a civil court decision that stripped a Montenegrin of his tenancy rights on the grounds of alleged war-time activities, a justification used to deprive Croatian Serbs of their tenancy rights in the early 1990s. Most former tenancy right holders seeking restitution continued to lack any legal recourse, however.

Improvements to the situation of Serbs in Croatia were not confined to government statements and legislative reform. In April, the government replaced the much-criticized Commission on Return with a new high-level body to oversee refugee return. On June 6, refugees associations in Croatia and Bosnia's Republika Srpska agreed to cooperate on the two-way return of Bosnian Croats and Croatian Serbs. A month later UNHCR announced an significant increase in return requests from Croatian Serbs in Republika Srpksa. By September, more than 10,000 Serbs had returned through organized programs with several thousand more returning unassisted.

The legacy of official discrimination against Serbs proved hard to erase, despite the commitment of the new government in Zagreb. Reports from Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitors indicated that many returning Serbs did not remain in Croatia. Administrative discrimination by the HDZ-dominated local authorities and local courts against Serbs continued, with little progress made on the restitution of property to Serb owners. Progress on the depoliticization of domestic war crimes trials was mixed: despite a recommendation by the Ministry of Justice that all pending war crimes cases be reviewed by local prosecutors (and repeated international requests that such cases be reviewed first by the ICTY), a Vukovar court convicted eleven Serbs of war crimes on May 22, ten of them in absentia. In addition, more Serbs were arrested on war crimes charges, including several who had recently returned from Serbia with clearance from the Croatian government. The July decision by an Osijek court to acquit five prominent Serbs previously convicted on dubious war crimes charges was a more hopeful sign.

The depth of mistrust between the Croat and Serb communities was underscored by the murders in March of a recently returned Serb man and an elderly Serb woman by local Croats, although the police made prompt arrests in both cases. Confidence among returning Serbs was undermined by the defacing of a monument to Serbs killed during the Second World War on May 17, and a poster campaign in Karlovac, Petrinja, and Sisak listing local Serbs alleged to have committed war crimes. The demolition of 300 war-damaged Serb homes by local authorities in Gospic on June 5 sent a similar signal.

Improvements in the treatment of Serbs stood in contrast to the continuing difficulties faced by Croatia's Roma population. Many of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Roma in Croatia lacked access to education and employment, faced discrimination in the provision of state assistance and housing, and had difficulty obtaining citizenship, as well as suffering racist attacks. The experience of the 420 Roma in Strmec Prodravski illustrated the wider problems facing Roma communities: In May, local authorities in Varazdin country ordered the Roma to move from their settlement in the village after refusing to allow them to build more permanent dwellings and a water and electricity supply.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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