Croatian Serbs Believe EU Entry Will Guarantee Their Rights

Ethnic Serbs who went to war in a bid to prevent Croatia’s independence are expected to endorse its EU membership this weekend, hoping it will improve their prospects and protect their rights.

The 1991 - 1995 civil war ended with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Serbs turning their back on their homeland and they now account for only 4.5 percent of Croatia’s 4.2 million population – down from a pre-war level of 12 percent.

But in traditional Serb areas such as the town of Dvor, which was on the front line of the war, those who have remained behind say they regard EU entry as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Brussels represents “an additional authority where (Croatian Serbs) can claim their rights. ... It’s a kind of guarantee,” said Nikola Arbutina, Dvor’s mayor, ahead of a nationwide referendum this Sunday on EU membership.

He said the six year long accession talks during which the EU insisted on the protection of ethnic Serbs and their right to return to their pre-war homes “improved the status and the perception of the Serb community”.

Even now Dvor, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of Zagreb, resembles a ghost town in parts with practically every second house deserted or still bearing the scars of the war.

While the region had some 14,500 inhabitants before the conflict who lived off the wood-processing industry and agriculture, the population has dwindled to 5,800 mostly elderly people who try to make ends meet.

Many of the rare young people in Dvor are skeptical that EU entry can improve their lives. Unemployment in the area is significantly higher than Croatia’s national average of some 18 percent.

Ljuban Bajic, killing time on a gambling machine in a cafe in the middle of the day, will probably vote ‘no’ because the “EU could not bring us anything good.”

“The prices will only go up,” the 24 year old unemployed salesman predicted.

However waiter Alen Kljajic is more optimistic.

“It will be better and easier to go abroad and find a job. Here it’s very difficult for the young,” the 23 year old told AFP.

Rade Dadic, 55, from the nearby village of Trgovi where he runs a pig farm, said he will also say ‘yes’ to the EU.

“I can only benefit. I will have a potential bigger market and there will be no borders,” Dadic, a Serb who returned to Dvor two years after the war ended, said.

“Once in the EU it will much better for both Serbs and Croatians.”

In an interview, Croatian Serb leader Milorad Pupovac said that resolving the status of the Serb minority had really pushed Croatia’s institutions to become more European.

“It is important that this process does not stop once Croatia joins the EU. Croatia must not be seen as a (European) outpost (in the Balkans) but rather as a driving force for spreading European values and institutions through the whole region of the former Yugoslavia,” he stressed.

Of the five other ex-Yugoslav republics – Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia – only the last is an EU member, joining in 2004. If the yes camp triumphs on Sunday, Croatia should become the second in July, 2013.

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