Croatian experience is no panacea
Some try to project the Croatian scenario of conflict settlement on the situation in the Ukrainian Donbas. However, having met with those who took personal part in the process of peaceful reintegration, having visited former hotbeds of that conflict, I give myself the right to state that it’s not the whole set of Croatian experience which Ukraine will be able to use. Still, it is possible to find something actually rational.
Due to the efforts of the Embassy of Ukraine to the Republic of Croatia and the Ukrainian Initiative in Croatia (representatives of our diaspora have significantly increased their efforts lately) a group of the Presidential Administration officials as well as those from the Ministry of Defense and the Interior Ministry, journalists and experts managed to see firsthand the local features of peaceful settlement.
Croatia fought for independence from scratch, overcoming, among other things, an arms embargo; while modern Ukraine is tasked with filling its independence with real content
I must recall that the mentioned conflict is “25 years old,” and one of the features very noticeable in the Balkans is that where no one forgot anything. Perhaps this is why direct participants of those events were as frank in their assessments. Specifically, Vesna Skare Ozbolt, who was a political coordinator of peaceful reintegration in the 1990's, stressed that, in order to carry out proper procedures for settlement, the Croats had to show strength. She stressed that, despite the declared amnesty, there was no actual forgiveness for the crimes, and indeed – many Serbs are still hiding from justice in the territory of Serbia. According to Ms. Skare Ozbolt, the experience with UN peacekeepers was not always positive (here we should recall certain specifics in the position of OSCE SMM), while Croatia was able to use to its advantage the “convalidation” –recognition of documents issued in the occupied territories, and the introduction of kuna as a national currency. It is worth noting that Croatia fought for independence from scratch, overcoming, among other things, an arms embargo; while modern Ukraine is tasked with filling its independence with real content.
Former Croatian Foreign Minister and Vice Prime Minister Mate Granic recalled that Croatia had to take in some 500,000-700,000 refugees, which was not an easy decision. However, Zagreb managed to enlist support of Pope John Paul II and win diplomatic battles at the UN Security Council. The experienced diplomat said that during the operations ”Lightning" and "Storm," the Croatian military had to act quickly and with maximum respect for international humanitarian law. However, the Croatian leadership, especially President Franjo Tudjman, did not refuse to stop this operation, even under tremendous pressure from the West. And this ability to prioritize protection of the national interests deserves attention.
Another reason for the success of the Croats was the anticipation of an actual threat that had gripped the society
Former Deputy Interior Minister Josko Moric described the process of peaceful reintegration. In particular, he recalled that in Vukovar there were no military units, while police functions were carried out by mixed forces. Moric lived in Vukovar for quite a while, overcoming the distrust in the process of the peaceful reintegration by the Croatian and Serbian communities. According to him, in the mid-90’s, police would be able to settle virtually all problems in the areas where just a few months ago, fierce fighting and ethnic cleansing took place. An interesting note here: the front line was never designated as a border. That is, on a subconscious level, the Croatian authorities never cast doubt that, sooner or later, they will recover their territories in full. That is exactly what happened. In fact, the Croatian experience is considered to be probably the only successful case in terms of peaceful reintegration.
I may suggest that one reason for the success of the Croats was the anticipation of an actual threat that gripped the society. The front line ran just 60 kilometers from Zagreb, and the prospects of creation of "Greater Serbia" were unacceptable to the vast majority of Croats. The fighting was so intense and fierce that even twenty years later, there still is a feeling of hostility to yesterday's adversaries, that’s the lingering economic problems. Of course, the ethnic composition of settlements that were mixed in the old days, has also changed. Croatia even had a special agency that contributed to the sale/purchase of property of those who fled the country because of ethnic conflict, and those willing to return instead. Today, the Croatian landscape keeps very few traces of war, but the conflict has surely left a huge footprint in the hearts of local residents.
The issue of holding local elections in the areas beyond government control remains on Ukraine’s top agenda. Vesna Skare Ozbolt stressed that it is impossible for the voters to cast their ballots being surrounded by armed men. Incidentally, she noted that three representatives of the Serb minority now represent its interests in the Croatian Sabor (parliament); and immediately after the conflict, they were appointed deputy ministers of defense, interior, and justice. By the way, Croatia has a Ministry of Veterans Affairs, which is trying to solve various social problems of those who defended their country from aggression.
As for Ukraine, its citizens should understand that there is no universal recipe for solving large-scale problems
As for the elections, I should refer to Lovre Pejkovic, former head of the Government Committee on displaced persons and refugees. He stressed the importance of the voters’ lists to provide for an effective election and providing the IDPs an opportunity to cast their ballots. Obviously, these ideas will be useful for Ukraine, when holding elections in the areas controlled by the pro-Russian militants today becomes inevitable.
Croats are sympathetic to Ukraine, because our problems with our "big brother" are similar. They coped with their problems, and joining the ranks of the EU and NATO guarantees its security today. As for Ukraine, its citizens should understand that there is no universal recipe for solving large-scale problems. Any attempts to copy-paste the other countries’ experience, even a successful one, may lead to frustration. Therefore, Ukraine should study the means used for resolving the past conflicts across Europe, choosing the rational ideas, but the country should rely solely on self-tailored solutions to the crisis in Donbas.