by Milena MILETIC
"We expected a lot, especially since this is pretty much the first case of this kind in this court, and is followed by thousands of similar cases," Savo Strbac, director of VERITAS, says for NIN. "If you consider the matter as a whole, it is clear that some 50,000 apartments are affected, and an equal number of bearers of tenancy rights. That means that we are talking about property and accommodations for 150,000 to 200,000 persons. That is a huge capital; with this decision Croatia achieves two things: the return of refugees remains blocked and a lot of money will be saved".
Although the case is not fully representative for Serb refugees from Croatia, the story is not unique or new. It is definitely related to huge expenses facing Croatian authorities, regarding compensation for not only houses, land, and property belonging to refugees in general, but also for the property of Serbian companies in Croatia. And all of that in the spirit and based on obligations from the succession agreement. The sum is huge, indeed. The return of Serbs is the key for everything. Judging by statistical data about the willingness of Serbs to return to Croatia, tenancy rights are a difficult political problem for every government in Croatia. This issue affects the return of refugees to large cities, where they lived before 1991, and the true return of refugees. This right, according to the Croatian non-governmental organization CERD has only been denied to Serbs who lived in apartments in territories that were not affected by fighting. Thus, a recognition of tenancy rights implies long term abandonment of the policy unofficially adopted by the Croatian authorities under Tudman and the HDZ, and then Racan's government after them. Most of the apartments, as many as 25,000, were taken away in 1992 based on the so-called Seks' law, according to which all those who were absent from their apartments for more than six months lost their tenancy rights. Tenancy rights, in the shape they were known under Socialism and in the former Yugoslavia have been abolished a while ago. Laws regulating handling of property in "liberated territories" from 1996 only prevented all requests for compensation for destroyed property. Tenancy property rights were proclaimed for a socialist invention and a relict from the past. The true problem with this type of property came up when Croatia was warned by the EU ad the OSCE that the first precondition for her entry into the European Union and NATO was the return of refugees and their property. Although last year president of Croatia Stipe Mesic claimed that he was "in favor" of treating tenancy rights as property rights, while the then Prime Minister Ivica Racan was "against", only when the authorities faced an EU and NATO ultimatum they decided to do something. Racan's government first prepared a set of laws according to which tenancy right would simply be eliminated. However, due to the ultimatum, they were forced to perform a political summersault. Thus, Racan's call to Serbs to return followed, further followed by the first proposal for the solution of this problem, which included renting and purchase of real estate owned by Serbs. At first glance, it seemed some movement had finally been made. However...
Savo Strbac says: "No one got their pre-war apartment back. According to the ‘Accommodation Act' every person with tenancy rights before the war may submit a request for accommodation provided they are permanently settled in Croatia, do not own any real estate in any part of the former Yugoslavia, and did not ‘alienate' anything since 1991. Of course, there is the chief precondition, that the person did not participate in the fighting. Only then, they may be given the right to rent and later purchase an apartment through the state subsidy program. Both the rent and interest rates in this program are very high. The most interesting facet of all this is that when ministers announced this program last year, the then Minister in charge of apartment construction, Cacic, stated that the problem would be solved with 5000 apartments. On the other hand, at least 50,000 apartments were taken away!"
Thus it worked during Racan's administration.
The current Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader, has promised to do much more than the previous government to solve this problem. Besides, he is obliged to do that by his coalition agreement with the political party representing Serbs, as well as by the succession rights agreement, signed by all countries created after the break up of the former Yugoslavia. However, the problem is that Sanader's claims that tenancy rights will be treated as ownership rights are flatly denied by his Minister for Justice Vesna Skare Ozbolt, judging by her comment on the verdict from Strasbourg. As far as Skare Ozbolt is concerned tenancy rights are an old story, resolved by a law from 1992, while the verdict from Strasbourg is only a confirmation of good work conducted by courts in Croatia.
According to official data of the Croatian government, last year 1461 buildings were returned to their original owners, while another 2048 await to be returned. Most of the objects still waiting to be returned to their original owners are to be found in the Sibenik-Knin county, then in Zadar, Sisak-Moslavina, and Karlovac counties. By the way, between 1997 and 2003 Croatia bought 7085 houses from Serbs, and according to the plans for 2004, another 1200 houses are to be bought as a part of the solution for the problem. Despite the coalition agreement and a recent warning by Milorad Popuvac, president of the Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDSS), Sanader was unable to meet previously agreed deadlines.
However, much more important in the whole issue is the fact that the reclaiming of tenancy rights is regulated by the Succession Agreement, ratified by the Croatian Parliament as well. Annex G, article 6 of the agreement, which has been welcomed by the international community, deals with tenancy rights. The agreement supercedes and automatically annuls all legislation dealing with refugee property previously enacted by Croatia. And while in other parts of the former Yugoslavia tenancy rights are recognized as ownership rights and the return of property on this basis has already been regulated, in Croatia developments are headed in a different direction.
"The Ministry for Human and Minority Rights cannot comment on the verdict, but it is clear that ‘tenancy rights' problem is very complex. It is necessary to align criteria in all parts of the former Yugoslavia. It is necessary to implement the Succession Agreement, but we must be aware that that agreement is only one of possible solutions. Our people should insist on sanctity of the right to home, which would be another basis to file these cases with the Court in Strasbourg. Because, with abolition of tenancy rights, refugees were in practice denied their right to home," Petar Ladjevic, advisor to the Minister for Human and Minority rights says for NIN.
For the sake of example, based on the Succession Agreement in Bosnia-Hercegovina the process of the return of real estate property to its original owners has nearly been completed, based on the decision of Carlos Westendorp, a former high representative of the international community. However, the triangle Bosnia-Hercegovina-Croatia-Serbs illustrates the difficulty of the problem. Serbs who in Bosnia-Hercegovina exchanged their property in Croatia for equivalent property in Bosnia-Hercegovina, belonging to Croats, now have to return that property, while those very same Croats, now living in Serb apartments and houses in Croatia, may keep the property they occupied after the expulsion of its original Serb owners.
To tell the truth, the judiciary in Western Europe does not recognize "tenancy rights" as ownership rights. But, if we take into account that both the EU and the OSCE recognized tenancy rights as such, based on the Succession Agreement and the fact that in the former Yugoslavia other ownership rights pretty much did not exist, then the decision of the court in Strasbourg is surprising, to say the least.
"It is unlikely that judges in Strasbourg do not know what happened in 1990 and 1991, and even later during the war. Moreover, in this particular case, of Kristina Blecic, the OSCE confirmed that her life in Zadar was in danger and that she was forced to abandon her apartment. Consequently, the claim that she could have remained in Zadar and shared the fate of other residents is ridiculous. I think that the court did not consider the Succession Agreement; it simply ignored it," Strbac believes.
"We do not have precise data about the number of persons seeking return to their pre-war apartments based on tenancy rights. At this moment we are more concerned with pushing the Croatian government to finally initiate a program that is supposed to find accommodation for these people. Then we shall get more reliable data about the number of persons interested in reclaiming their rights on this basis. In any case, the provision of accommodation for former bearers of tenancy rights who wish to return to Croatia continues to be one of the most important issues concerning the OSCE mission in Croatia and its international partners. The verdict of the European Human Rights Court in the case ‘Blecic vs. Republic of Croatia' does not change that," the OSCE office in Zagreb stated for NIN.
Savo Strbac also does not know the exact number of cases pending in the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, but believes that the number is relatively small; all legal instances in Croatia must be passed before filing a lawsuit in Strasbourg, which takes several years. However, one thing is certain - that thousands of persons have no hope for assistance left, at least not from Strasbourg.