In a gloomy suite of offices decorated with stern portraits of former dictator Josip Broz Tito, Milorad Pupovac and a dozen Serbian intellectuals are planning their future in the secession-minded Yugoslav republic of Croatia.
Most offices and businesses have removed Tito’s once-omnipresent visage from their walls. But the Serbs in Croatia have cause to miss his rule. As the warfare in Yugoslavia escalates, their security deteriorates.
“Today in Yugoslavia,” Pupovac said, “it’s hardest to be a minority.”
Pupovac, a 36-year-old linguistics professor who is now a politician, knows this from experience. Since the start of the undeclared civil war in Yugoslavia, Pupovac, his wife and their two children have received dozens of not-so-friendly telephone calls at night. The harassment soon turned to death threats.
He fears a time when he’ll have to do more than just change his phone number. But his experiences are mild compared to those of other Serbs living in Croatia. No single ethnic group dominates in any two of Yugoslavia’s republics. But in Croatia, Serbs make up the largest minority. About 600,000 Serbs are scattered in every corner of the republic among a population of about 4.5 million.
So far, the clashes between Croatian forces and Serbian irregulars backed by the Yugoslav army have been largely fought in the countryside.
But it is in Croatia’s large cities that the greatest concentration of Serbs is found. If ethnic divisions should prompt neighbors of differing nationalities to turn against one another in Zagreb and other centers, the bloodshed could be unfathomable.
“I’m afraid to even think about it,” Pupovac said. Tensions are already beginning to rise. Some of the 65,000 Serbs living in Croatia’s capital city of 1 million said that the harassment experienced by Pupovac is not uncommon.
Serbs interviewed at a Serbian Orthodox church in Zagreb said their homes have been searched by police looking for weapons. Some have lost jobs. Others have begun to scratch distinctly Serbian names off mailboxes. Businesses belonging to Serbs have been vandalized, they said. And all say they risk retaliation if they acknowledge that they are Serbs.
“People are really afraid,” said Milenko Popovic, a deacon at the church of the Holy Transubstantiation, a Serbian Orthodox church. He said they are even reluctant to worship, noting that the Zagreb congregation on Sundays has shrunk from about 400 people to between 30 and 40. “They’re afraid for their very existence.”
Popovic said that fear forces the Serbian minority in Croatia to remain quiet, even as the fighting escalates.
But Croatian officials like Zagreb City Council President Mladen Vedris said the low profile is being perceived as assent to what is seen as the expansionist aims of the neighboring republic.
“They are quite silent these days,” Vedris said of the Serbian community. “To be silent these days is a sign of support.”
Speaking out would not necessarily require a demonstration on the city’s main square, Vedris said. He suggested that Serbs supporting the Croatian government should take more subdued measures, such as writing letters to newspaper editors or signing petitions.
Other leaders believe that a loyalty oath should be signed. Some said 90% of the Serbian population should just leave.
“It is not a good sign,” Pupovac said of a newspaper article calling for loyalty oaths. “And I hope that such an opinion is not very wide.”
Some of the Serbs living in Croatia back the republic’s government and would no doubt sign such oaths. But the mere idea poses a dilemma for people like Pupovac, who are products of what being Yugoslav once meant. Born in Croatia to Serbian parents, these Serbs don’t want to be forced out of their homes. At the same time, they don’t want to lose their heritage and ties with other Serbs.
As the war progresses, Pupovac said, they risk being the Palestinians of Europe--a people with no real home. Fighting quietly is Pupovac, a slight, serious man who when angry tends to speak more slowly rather than raising his voice.
His party, the Serbian Democratic Forum, has no visible following. But Pupovac is nonetheless being recognized.
Slaven Letica, a former adviser to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, speculated that the guerrilla war under way would produce few military heroes like Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf or Gen. George S. Patton. But without the news conferences and tanks that pushed such commanders into the limelight, a behind-the-scenes political player like Pupovac has a greater chance of gaining influence, Letica said.
“He could play a key role,” Letica said, but pointed out that strong backing from Serbia could weaken that role.
“Any formal support would destroy his legitimacy with the (Croatian) government,” Letica said.
Pupovac has gained influence in part because many of the Serbian leaders elected to Croatia’s Parliament left in a dispute that began over the republic’s new constitution, which reduces their power.
But those Serbian leaders who remained in Croatia’s Parliament said they wonder who gave Pupovac, an unelected official, the right to speak for the majority of Serbs in Croatia.
“If anyone should talk to (Serbian President Slobodan) Milosevic, it should be Tudjman,” one leader said.
Pupovac said his party wants Serbs within Croatia to have some form of autonomy. But he refuses to define how that would work, saying that such discussion is premature until a truce is in place.
“The Serbian people desire a position in which they will be able to protect themselves from inequality and assimilation,” Pupovac wrote in a letter to Lord Carrington, the chairman of the European Commission panel that is attempting to broker peace in Croatia.
Disregard for the concerns of minorities and the explosion of nationalism in the last year are at the crux of the nation’s problems, Pupovac said.
After four decades under a Communist government that forbade any display of national sentiment, Croatia is now awash in flags and other items bearing its emblem, the checkerboard shield.
But many Serbs in Croatia see those symbols as unwelcome reminders of Croatia’s puppet government under Nazi Germany during World War II. Pupovac said that when he tried to explain this to the Croatian government, “they didn’t want to listen.”
“They didn’t have ears to hear me,” he said. “They only had throats” to sing Croatian songs and utter other displays of nationalism.
Part of the problem, Pupovac said, is that nationality disputes that raged during World War II have been “hibernating” under the Communist system, which never allowed those issues to be addressed.
Although opponents may decide to direct their aggressions against Pupovac and his family, he said he’s not going anywhere. “I have a responsibility for the many Serbs living in Zagreb,” he said. “Because of that, I must stay here.”
Name: Milorad Pupovac
Title: A leader of the Serbian Democratic Forum. Although an unelected official, he has become a spokesman for Serbs in Croatia.
Personal: Linguistics professor by training. Married with two children.
Quote: “The Serbian people in Croatia are in between stepmothers. That means one political face looks to Belgrade and the other to Zagreb.”