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Cablegate: Prm Trip Report: Croatia's Progress On Refugee Return,

VZCZCXRO2045
RR RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHDA RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHIK RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHLN
RUEHLZ RUEHPOD RUEHROV RUEHSR RUEHVK RUEHYG
DE RUEHBW #0630/01 1761748
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 241748Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY BELGRADE
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 0101
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 BELGRADE 000630

SIPDIS
SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PREF PGOV PHUM HR REFUGEES

SUBJECT: PRM TRIP REPORT: CROATIA'S PROGRESS ON REFUGEE RETURN,
REINTEGRATION

REF: ZAGREB 468

SUMMARY
-------

1. (SBU) Belgrade-based Regional Refugee Coordinator for the
Balkans traveled to Croatia, June 10-13, to assess the status of
refugee returns and to discuss concerns of displaced persons and
returnees. Meetings with representatives of the Government of
Croatia, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
civil society, local government entities, and returnees focused on
sustainability of minority returns. Although conditions for
returnees have improved and Croatia has made strides to promote a
multi-ethnic state, interlocutors emphasized the need for the GOC's
continued action and the international community's engagement to
resolve outstanding issues related to return and reintegration of
ethnic minorities.

ACCELERATED PLAN TO RESOLVE OCCUPANCY TENANCY RIGHTS CASES
--------------------------------------------- --------

2. (SBU) The GOC's draft Action Plan for the Accelerated
Implementation of the Housing Care Program, which was shared with
the Embassy and other international community officials in early
June, calls for the government to resolve outstanding claims of
former occupancy and tenancy rights holders (ex-OTR holders) who
seek to return to Croatia by the end of 2009, two years ahead of
earlier deadlines. Milivoj Mikulic, State Secretary of the Ministry
for Regional Development, Reconstruction, and Return, told RefCoord
on June 10, that he was committed to implement the detailed plan.
Mikulic said that the government had committed sufficient funds to
resolve all claims. He attributed delays in resolving 1,400 tenancy
rights cases during 2007 to administrative setbacks in dealing with
property and land issues, rather than budgetary concerns. "We will
handle housing care. The money is there," he said. Mikulic said
that the government would process the backlog of cases by June 30
and aimed to resolve the remaining caseload of about 4,400 claims by
the end of 2009.

3. (SBU) Mikulic told us the GOC was focusing first on resolving
housing care for ex-OTR holders, approximately 60% of whom are
ethnic Serbs and 40% of whom currently reside in Serbia awaiting a
decision on their claims. He noted that the government would also
need to resolve the claims of Bosnian Croats to housing solutions.
Regarding ex-OTR holders with claims involving property outside the
designated (mainly war-affected) Areas of Special State Concern
(ASSC) who had yet to apply for housing care, Mikulic said that the
September 2005 deadline had already passed, but that they could
apply for housing care inside the ASSC, noting that there was no
deadline for applying for housing care inside the ASSC.

4. (SBU) Referring to the quality of the housing care allocated,
Mikulic and his assistant said the apartments were generally in
average to good condition. (NOTE: In a subsequent meeting with
representatives of the international community (REFTEL), GoC
officials acknowledged that some of the housing still required
repairs, and committed to doing them. END NOTE) Mikulic added that
returnees received 500 HRK (approximately US $106) per month for six
months following their return. Finally, he claimed the GOC was very
much in favor of return, arguing that they had been few cases of
ethnic tension related to returnees in the country.

UNHCR: RENEWED GOC FOCUS ON SOLUTIONS ENCOURAGING
--------------------------------------------- -

5. (SBU) Outstanding issues related to housing care for ex-OTR
holders and claims to pension rights earned between 1991 and 1995 in
areas outside of Croatian control during the war were on our agenda
for a June 10 meeting with UNHCR Croatia Representative Wilfried
Buchhorn, Associate Protection Officer Mario Pavlovic and Durable
Solutions Assistant Borka Vukelic. Buchhorn noted that the
formation of the new government in late 2007 signaled a
reinvigorated focus on durable solutions for returnees. He said the
swift compilation and May publication of the "Rulebook on
Convalidation of Working Years" was a positive step toward a
permanent solution. He cautioned, however, that the existing decree
on convalidation, which required applications to be submitted by
April 10, 1999, had either to be voided or overlooked for officials
to process new requests.

6. (SBU) UNHCR staff told us that the government was still working
to meet certain benchmarks for housing care for ex-OTR holders that
were part of Croatia's opening negotiations on Chapter 23 (Judicial
and Fundamental Rights) of the EU Accession process. Pavlovic
emphasized that it was not just the "hardware" of housing and
reconstruction that was most important, but the process of
reconciliation for ethnic minorities and the majority that mattered
for the long term sustainability of return. He said that one key
component of this would be the implementation of the new law on
employment of minorities in public administration as a percentage of

BELGRADE 00000630 002 OF 003


the population.

7. (SBU) Following the closure of the OSCE Croatia mission in late
2007, UNHCR has taken on a more central role in monitoring Croatia's
progress on remaining issues related to returns, Pavlovic said.
Pavlovic told us that the Ministry for Regional Development had
asked UNHCR to review about 850 negative applications for housing
care outside the ASSC, under a newly established appeals process
(REFTEL). Pavlovic said that 50% of the 177 cases he had personally
reviewed to date required revisions. He considered the government's
willingness to involve UNHCR in the process and to reverse its own
decisions a sign of increased transparency and commitment.

BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN ZAGREB AND REST OF CROATIA
--------------------------------------------- ---

8. (SBU) According to Tomo Aracic, president of the Association of
Settlers and an advisor to the GOC on regional development,
reconstruction, and return, the key ingredient to the normalization
of life in war-torn areas is property repossession. Economic
revitalization follows a close second. Based in Knin, in the
Dalmatian hinterland, Aracic works closely with ethnically diverse
communities and has good insight into life outside the capital. He
told us, during a June 11 visit to Knin, of the work still to be
done to bridge the gap between the political will in the capital and
the lack of capacity and expertise of government offices outside
Zagreb to actually implement the government's decisions and provide
the durable solutions for refugees and returnees.

CROATIAN RED CROSS ASSISTANCE TO VULNERABLE RETURNEES
--------------------------------------------- --

9. (SBU) According to Croatian Red Cross (CRC) Regional Coordinator
Mirjana Ercegovic, returnees, particularly elderly women and
individuals in poor health continue to trickle into Croatia.
Ercegovic told us on June 12, that, the previous week, CRC had
assisted the return of two extremely vulnerable returnees, aged 95
and 97. Ercegovic said these individuals had returned to Croatia to
die where they had been born. (In partnership with UNHCR, the CRC
assists elderly returnees to access health care and to reintegrate
in their place of origin. The CRC also monitors the health of
returnees via mobile teams in remote locations of the country.)

SERBIAN DEMOCRATIC FORUM: DPM LEADERSHIP PROMISING
--------------------------------------------- -----

10. (SBU) Leaders of the Serbian Democratic Forum (SDF), an NGO,
told us during a June 12 meeting that they are impressed with Deputy
Prime Minister Uzelac and that they appreciated the opportunity to
speak with his staff candidly, and on a regular basis, about
minority issues. SDF, a UNHCR implementing partner, provides free
legal aid to minority returnees in three phases of return: personal
documentation, property repossession and integration. SDF leaders
stressed that more work was needed to resolve the still outstanding
housing reconstruction cases, but conceded that much reconstruction
that had already taken place was of high quality.

11. (SBU) Although SDF staff expressed concern that the GOC had
provided insufficient guidance on the implementation of the Rulebook
on Convalidation, they noted a significant increase in requests for
convalidation since the publication of the Rulebook in May -- fifty
requests daily, in the past month. SDF leadership was cautiously
optimistic that the process would go well. SDF expected that the
GOC would continue to accept applications, but predicted that some
applications would likely be denied for insufficient or improper
documentation.

12. (SBU) SDF leaders also said that OTR cases that the GOC had
considered "resolved" would take some time to complete. They said
some housing units were of questionable quality and/or were
occupied. They estimated that 30% of the "resolved" cases still
require additional work. Our SDF interlocutors said that there were
no guarantees that the government would resolve all of the remaining
cases, but acknowledged that the GOC was making steady, albeit slow
progress on housing care.

KNIN LEADERS CLAIM CITY AN EXAMPLE OF ETHNIC HARMONY
--------------------------------------------- -----

13. (SBU) Knin Deputy Mayor Dragan Jerkovic and local MP Tomislav
Vrdoljak told us that they considered Knin an ideal example of
ethnic harmony. "We have had no inter-ethnic disputes, and we are
proud that unlike in Vukovar, for example, children of all
ethnicities here attend school together," Jerkovic said. Vrdoljak
added that the return process in Knin was on balance successful;
2,000 of the city's current 17,000 residents were ethnic Serbs.
Jerkovic said housing care for 28 families in Knin had been
resolved, and he anticipated resolving an additional 200 by the end
of the year. "All ex-OTR holders who want to return to Knin and who
request housing care will receive it," he said. Vrdoljak concluded

BELGRADE 00000630 003 OF 003


that Knin was in the process of implementing Croatia's new
constitutional law on minorities, which he deemed one of the best in
Europe.

14. (SBU) We visited Susa Vukosava, a former OTR holder who
received an apartment in central Knin in 2007 through the housing
care program. Vukosava, a single mother, told us that she had not
yet moved into the apartment and was staying with family in a nearby
village. We toured the apartment, which requires some basic repair,
but is in overall fair condition, with running water and
electricity. According to UNHCR, the apartment was representative
of the "average" allocated under the housing care program.

RETURNEES GLAD TO BE BACK, DESPITE CHALLENGES
---------------------------------------------

15. (SBU) Satisfaction to be back in their homes was the defining
sentiment for several ethnic Serb returnee families we visited in
the Lika and Zadar Hinterlands. For the Buljevic family, who
returned to the small village of Muskovci in 2000 with UNHCR
assistance, hard work and the resolve to make peace with former
neighbors are critical to sustainable return. "I have former
neighbors who still live in dilapidated shelters in Vojvodina and
are interested in returning, but they think it can be done
overnight; it just isn't possible," said Buljevic. Buljevic told us
that he had invested much of his own labor into rebuilding his home
with the reconstruction materials he received from the government.


16. (SBU) For others like the Lakic family, the process of return
proved more challenging. The family was among the first to return,
in 2006, to the devastated, heavily mined Benkovac region. The
Lakic home, now a solid stone structure, has been completely
rebuilt. The family depends on agricultural activity for a
subsistence-level income. Nevertheless, for the elder Lakic, he
would not trade being home for anything in the world. "There were
many obstacles to my return, but I am happy to be back in my home,"
he said.

COMMENT
-------

17. (SBU) Croatia has made steady progress in recent years on
return and reintegration of ethnic minorities. As the Croatian
government recognizes, more remains to be done. As the country
continues along its European path, engagement from European
institutions, particularly the EU, will be important to encouraging
the GoC to resolve these issues.

18. (U) Embassy Zagreb has cleared this cable.

MUNTER

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