Words and Reality
Despite the written guarantees given the Serbian minority in Croatia, the critics noted that these were only words, not deeds. But the actions of many loyal Orthodox Serbs spoke volumes. When Croatia was attacked, many Serbs tled not to Belgrade, but to the Croatian capital of Zagreb and to other non-occupied areas. More Serbs chose to live at peace in free Croatia than chose to live under Belgrade's Serbian occupation. As late as March 1995, only months before liberation of the occupied areas, 218,000 ethnic Serbs lived in free Croatia as opposed to 184,000 in occupied Croatia. Peaceful Croatian Serbs were not mistreated in free Croatia where several were elected to Parliament and one was its Vice President.
In February 1995, a Los Angeles Times staff writer wrote an extensive article on the Serbs as an "oppressed minority." He quoted only two Serbs by name as examples of the oppression they suffered. One, Veselin Pejenovic was a member of Parliament, a former advisor to the Croatian Ministry of Defense, an advisor to the Croatian Government, and a professor of Political Science at the University of Zagreb. The other, Milorad Pupovac, was a professor of linguistics and head of the Serbian Democratic Forum (an opposition political party), and Head of Applied Linguistics at the University of Zagreb.
The writer admitted that a dozen seats in Parliament were held by Serbs at the time, but did not mention that a Serb, Milan Djukic, was the Vice President of Parliament. It apparently did not occur to Lhe staff writer or his editors that these were unusual posts for an oppressed minority in a country where, according to the writer, Serbs could not hold a job. Conversely, no single Croatian in Serbia, twelve per cent of the population in 1991, held any position of authority after 1989.
In fact, Parliamentarian Veselin Pejenovic noted that the Croatian government, despite the ravages of war, had spent about one and one half million U.S. dollars in 1995 and 1996 for the political needs and activities of the Serb community. That community had so many organizations that in 1996 a National Council of Serbian Organizations (NSSO) was formed in Zagreb. By mid-1996, the Croatian government was supporting forty kindergartens, sixty primary schools, five secondary schools, and three university departments serving minority communities in their own languages with curriculums in nine languages.
In April 1996 yet another Serb asked to return to C:roatia and become a Croatian citizen. Jovanka Broz, the widow of President Tito and a Serb from Croatia, applied for Croatian citizenship. She had lived in Belgrade for decades but even she could no longer abide Slobodan Milosevic, who kept her under virtual house arrest. Her son, Aleksandar Miso Broz, a Croatian diplomat, proposed that Tito's remains also be returned to his birthplace in Kumrovec, Croatia. Since Milosevic appeared eager to destroy Tito's elegant Belgrade mausoleum, it seemed that at last, even Tito might come home to Croatia.
Finally in early 1995, a Serb writer, Moma Dimic turned to pure fiction in the National Catholic Register while attempting to raise the specter of "ethnic cleansing" by stating that "Croatia's Catholic Church has already "converted" at least 11,000 Orthodox Christians." That statement was immediately denied by both Catholic and Serbian Orthodox leaders in Croatia. On January 11, 1995, Archpriest Jovan Nikolic of Zagreb stated that the rumor of conversions was "instrumented with lies, half-truths, misinformation" and stated flatly that such conversions had not taken place. Despite the words of both Catholic and Orthodox leaders, the myths of forced conversions and the wholesale destruction of Orthodox churches continued oughout the war.
On March 5, I996, the myths were largely put to rest when the Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan of Ljubljana-Zagreb Jovan Pavlovic visited Croatia at the invitation of the Catholic Bishop of Sibenik, Srecko Badurina. Despite years of propaganda, the Metropolitan observed that there was no damage to the Orthodox monasteries and churches that he saw.
After years of hatred and destruction, Jovan ordered his priests and bishops to return to their posts in Croatia, urged the Serbian people to return to their homes, and declared that the Croatian Catholic Bishop was highly respected by the Orthodox Church. Reflecting on the next phase of Croatian Catholic and Serbian Orthodox relations, Jovan said:
Before these obstacles, it can be said "it is impossible" or "it is possible with God's help." We would have to say "it is possible with God's help," althuugh it is not always possible to see the precise day, time, how and when. If we establish our position upon a firm Godly basis, then it will be possible to anticipate what we cannot plan. Therefore, this is one conversation that should guide our steps in this Christian direction toward some near or distant future.
Perhaps Bishop Badurina and Metropolitan Jovan wrote the first words in a new chapter of reconciliation in a peaceful, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious Croatia of the twenty-first century.