Croatia: New Math

A Croation woman holds aloft a picture of late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in a Oct. 20, 2001 protest in Zagreb (Photo: AFP).

Croatia’s 2001 census indicates a sharp drop in the Serb population, prompting commentators across the political spectrum to speculate about the cause of the decline. Some blame the nationalist designs of Serbs themselves, while others fault Croat chauvinism.

Before war broke out in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Serbs comprised 12.6 percent of Croatia’s 4.7 million population. Since then, the total population has fallen to 4.4 million, and the share of Serbs has dropped by nearly two-thirds, to 4.5 percent. This supports the view that there was a deliberate expulsion by government forces: the first, in May 1995, when the army took over Serb-held territory in eastern Croatia, and the second, in August of that year, in central Croatia.

Slobodna Dalmacija’s Josip Jovic attempted to cast the census numbers in the best possible light (June 5). He wrote that Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan “gave the best definition of the situation” when he said that “those who started the aggression [Serbs] ought to have expected an exodus.”

Zagreb has accused Serbia of supporting Croatian Serbs to instigate conflict before Croatia’s declaration of independence in June 1991. But Srecko Jurdana of Nacional suggested that one should not paint all Serbs with a broad brush (May 28): “[I]t seems that ethnic reduction is officially regarded as a kind of deserved collective punishment, despite the fact that it involves many Serbs who had nothing to do with provoking the war.”

Yet in analyzing the cause of the population drop, Jovic returned to the question of blame: “[M]any Serbs did not want to reveal their nationality, seeking to hide or change it after all that happened” during the war. He added: “To be a Serb in Croatia was not pleasant for a while. Maybe it still isn’t. But isn’t that a result of [their] support of an extremely anti-Croatian program?” Such fear itself is worrisome, wrote Globus’ Inoslav Besker (June 7): “Allowing fear (or shame) to suppress nationality in the census or expanding minority rights on the basis of [census] data is truly vile, even if  malice is unintended and not proof of [late President Franjo] Tudjman’s onetime aim of reducing the Serbs in Croatia to 3 or 4 percent.”

In an effort to explain the census results, the government has presented documents allegedly seized after the Croatian army regained control in Krajina, a formerly Serb-held territory in central Croatia. According to Novi List, the documents indicate that Serbs left Croatia after being organized by their leaders and before Croatian troops arrived.

Yet, commented Novi List columnist Jelena Lovric (June 7), the government version “carefully notes events on the Serb side, but it neglects all known evidence that the Croatian regime [at the time] had a detailed plan that it carried out to reduce the number of Serbs in Croatia.” By taking such a selective approach to historical evidence, Lovric wrote, the current regime “defends Tudjman’s policy and hides his crimes.”