This implies that, as part of governing structures, we will be able to affect an entire series of social and political assumptions.
The very act of my election as a minister in the Government of the Republic of Serbia, me being a political representative of the Croatian community, greatly changed the dominant perception of local Croats, Tomislav Žigmanov, Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue of the Republic of Serbia and President of the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina, told Diplomay&Commerce. If I understood the content and messages in the media address of the participants behind closed doors, it was agreed at the beginning of the “thawing” of relations between Serbia and Croatia that an analysis of the situation in each of the individual areas would be initiated – from the members of all existing interstate commissions to the analysis of what has been done so far and the challenges that need to be solved, says Tomislav Žigmanov.
- How would you describe the state of human rights in Serbia? Where do you see the application of the highest European standards, and which areas still have some flaws?
First of all, it should be said that in assessments of the state of human and minority rights, the reports of NGOs and organizations marked as international organizations are almost always different from those signed by state institutions, and in this sense, Serbia is no exception. Where there is a high level of agreement between both sides is that Serbia has accepted, i.e. ratified almost all conventions, pacts or charters of the United Nations, the Council of Europe or the Organization for European Security and Cooperation, and that the value and normative framework they contain is almost completely transferred into Serbia’s own legislation. Also, the fact that Serbia is a country committed to the implementation of the law, which is the concept of human and minority rights, cannot be disputed. In the past few years, we have made great strides when it comes to Roma integration, gender equality and the inclusion of marginalized and vulnerable groups. And yet, this does not mean that problems in the application of legal norms do not exist, as pointed out by some non-governmental organizations, or that there is no room for improvement or that there is no need to work on it when it comes to human rights, especially in the area of social rights, but also when it comes to minority rights of certain national minorities. The very fact that the Government of the Republic of Serbia has a ministry in charge of the implementation of human and minority rights speaks volumes about the awareness in the governing structure of the importance of a systematic approach to this issue and the need for dedicated action to improve this important area of social life.
- What would you single out as the most important projects of the Ministry you are leading?
During the first 100 days of my mandate as a minister, elections were successfully held for members of national councils of national minorities – with the newly elected Council of Gorani people, Serbia today has minority self-governing bodies of 24 national communities. We managed to increase funds by nearly 20% for their functioning and work, which is the first increase after more than 10 years. We are nearing the end of the process of forming the Council for Cooperation and Development of Civil Society of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, as a new institute in strengthening cooperation between public authorities and civil society. A whole series of activities have been undertaken when it comes to reporting on the achievement of gender equality in the Republic of Serbia, and the first steps have been taken so that women’s “invisible work” will begin to be valued through the social and health care system, for the first time in history. We established a continuous affirmation of the culture of human and minority rights and all important social events and values that stand at the foundation of democracy, as a political system that Serbia is committed to building.
- What are the projects you are working on and which ones would you single out? And how much room is there for some topics (the issue of minority rights, the development of civil society…) in a society where tension and uncertainty reigns?
In the part related to national minorities, the biggest challenge is the completion of the Action Plan for the realization of rights of national minorities. A large number of activities await us in the process of social inclusion of Roma men and women, among which one of the most important is the establishment of a Fund for improving the position of members of this sensitive community. We expect the first real results regarding women’s “invisible work”, so we could begin to value it through the social and health care system. The approach to human rights should be based on one strategic document – the Strategy for Monitoring and Improving Human Rights in the Republic of Serbia must be adopted during this year. It will create a framework for monitoring the state of human rights, which will be the basis for coordinated and multi-sector undertaking of adequate measures to improve the state and the associated development and improvement of the culture of human rights. The continuous affirmation of human rights throughout the year should end with the commemoration of 75 years since the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- You are the leader of the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina. How would you describe the position of Croats in Serbia today? Is there any progress compared to the previous period and what are you focusing on to improve your position?
very act of my election as a minister in the Government of the Republic of Serbia, me being a political representative of the Croatian community, which happened at the suggestion of the president of Serbian Progressive Party, Aleksandar Vučić, greatly changed the dominant perception of local Croats – it began to change for the better, and a direct consequence of this is that people have become more relaxed. On the other hand, as a minister in the Government of the Republic of Serbia, although of course I am not a minister for Croats, I will have the opportunity to make decisions that will result in a real improvement of our social position. This will happen with regard to the entire spectrum of challenges that Croats face – from greater representation of Croats in public administration, through solving problems related to communal infrastructure and living conditions in places where Croats live, to increasing the scope and quality of exercising minority rights. In other words, we now have the opportunity to directly contribute to securing the survival prospects of Croats in Vojvodina, that is, in the Republic of Serbia. This implies that, as part of the ruling structures, we will be able to influence a whole series of social and political assumptions – from the creation of a positive and tolerant atmosphere in society, the creation and implementation of measures in the economy and agriculture that will make it possible to make a living from one’s work, more balanced regional development and creation of quality living conditions and equal access to public services, the strengthening and development of the institutional framework of the Croatian community – from the network of Croatian cultural associations and new institutions such as the professional theater scene, through the increase in the number of schools with classes in Croatian language – and finally the forming of the School Centre, to social centers of local Croatian communities, which will be focal points of national life and our survival.
- You and Mr Pupovac from SNV started the mission of “thawing” relations between Serbia and Croatia. We know what the points of contention are (issues of missing persons, borders…) Do you think it is possible to improve relations between the two countries if we keep in mind that they have been hot and cold since the end of the conflict in the 90s?
Yes, a kind of “kairos”, a happy, convenient moment in the “thawing” this time belongs to sometimes painful actions of political organizations of two minority communities. It should be said that the cooperation between the institutions and organizations of Croats in Serbia and Serbs in Croatia was not hindered during the entire period of stagnation in the relations between the two countries. Additional importance in the dynamics of those relations was brought by the fact that the political champion of the Croatian community – i.e. me, became part of the executive power in the Republic of Serbia thanks to the decision of the winner in the elections, president of the Serbian Progressive Party and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. This fact, apart from being an act of positive recognition of the political subjectivity of Croats in Serbia that has not been seen before, was almost unanimously positively evaluated by representatives of the authorities in the Republic of Croatia, primarily Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, which was also an important moment in creating the climate for holding the first meetings at a high level. On the other hand, it is necessary to keep in mind the fact that the “freeze” of relations between the Republic of Croatia and the Republic of Serbia has simply become difficult to sustain, that is, the burden of unresolved, open issues has generated the need to start solving them anew. It is also necessary to take into account the growing awareness of the need among the ruling political class for a new wave of communication and cooperation. The interests of official Bruxelles, who did not put up with non-cooperation, should not be overlooked either. In other words, the whole range of causes and reasons contributed to the fact that institutional communication, as the zero prerequisite for cooperation between the two countries, started to take place after more than two years. As it seems now, with the advanced improvement of the social position, it can hardly be expected that the (adverse) situations for both Croats in Serbia and Serbs in Croatia “could go back to the way they were”.
- What are the specific steps being made, and when do you expect some “tangible” results?
If I understood the content and messages in the media address of the participants behind closed doors, it was agreed that an analysis of the situation in each of the individual areas would be initiated – from the members of all existing interstate commissions to the analysis of what has been done so far and the challenges that need to be solved. These issues are not new, and they were precisely defined in the so-called Subotica Declaration from 2016 – the missing persons, the issues of war heritage, the position of national minorities, borders, economic cooperation, and the “inventory of the situation” is a fundamental assumption that is needed for these committees to function in a technical and operational sense. If I understood correctly, the issue of cooperation in European integrations will be communicated during the visit of Minister Tanja Miščević to Zagreb, which was also agreed upon at the meeting in Subotica. On the other hand, the Croatian side also expressed expectations that the first “official meeting” on the top in a fuller capacity and in a more adequate format should take place after more serious steps have been taken in politically sensitive issues such as the issue of the missing persons, which means that they know what to do in regards to that matter as well.