Senior Serbian state officials have dismissed claims by Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovac that Serbia has not been meeting its obligations regarding the representation of the ethnic Croat community in the parliament, noting that he should have directed his criticism at representatives of the Croat community who decide how they participate in the election process.

Commenting on the statement Kovac made in an interview with a Zagreb TV station on Friday evening, when he said that Serbia was not fulfilling its obligations from an agreement between the two countries envisaging the representation of the Croat minority in the Serbian parliament, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said on Saturday that the Croat ethnic community in Serbia was entitled to three seats in the parliament but that its representatives did not exercise that right.

"Serbia does meet all international standards regarding minority rights. Our election system clearly defines that the 5% election threshold does not apply to minority slates but rather that minority seats are allocated in line with the so-called natural threshold," the Serbian foreign minister said in a statement carried by his ministry.

Dacic went on to say that in line with legal provisions, Croat slates could win three seats in the national parliament "if they participated in elections on their own", but that political representatives of the Croat community in Serbia had not made such a decision. That is not the fault of the state, but rather of the Democratic Alliance of the Vojvodina Croats (DSHV), Dacic suggested in his comment on Kovac's claim.

"The decision by the DSHV to join the slate of the Democratic Party (DS) goes directly against the interests of the Croat community. So the right address for criticism is not Serbia but the DSHV," said Dacic, noting that he had already informed his Croatian counterpart of this at a meeting of EU and Western Balkan foreign ministers in Amsterdam.

The chair of the previous Serbian parliament's committee on human and minority rights, Meho Omerovic, too, dismissed Kovac's claim that Serbia discriminated against the Croat ethnic community.

Omerovic recalled that just like other minority communities, the Croat community in Serbia, too, had the right and possibility to participate in elections independently and thus secure seats in the parliament.

"If we just look at the figures, there are 60,000 Croats in Serbia, who, if they participated in elections on their own, like other ethnic minorities, could win up to three seats. That is the case, for example, with Albanians," Omerovic told the news agency Tanjug.

Omerovic added that "the Croat National Council and representatives of the Croat community, who are politically organised in Vojvodina, do not want to exercise the right to the natural threshold but rather join the Democratic Party's slate."

"Their number of seats in the parliament will depend on whether the Democrats will give them one or two seats," Omerovic said, adding that such a political decision by the Croat community was strange and that claims that Serbia was discriminating against it were very rude.

He went on to say that Serbia's and Croatia's election laws significantly differed and that under Serbia's election legislation minority slates did not have to pass the 5% election threshold but were entitled to the so-called natural threshold that made it possible for "any minority that wins 15,000 votes to have at least one deputy in the National Assembly."

Omerovic also said that Serbia had ratified all international conventions and that it complied with its obligations regarding ethnic minorities and respected their rights.

This Bosniak from Novi Pazar, who is a member of the Social Democratic Party of Serbia (SDPS) of Rasim Ljajic and who was a member of Parliament in several terms, said that "unfortunately, the issue of minority rights is raised in former Yugoslav countries only at the time of elections."

Omerovic said that Croatia had more than 10 constituencies, with precisely defined minority representation in its parliament, while Serbia was a single constituency and in its last, 250-member parliament had more than 20 representatives of ethnic minorities.

"Looking at those absolute figures, there are representatives of all ethnic minorities in the parliament except for the Croat minority, because they are gathered around the political party of the Vojvodina Croats which usually participates in elections on the slate of the Democratic Party. Why they were not on the DS slate in the previous parliament is a question they should be asked," said Omerovic.

Six political parties and organisations signed at DS offices in Belgrade on Friday a coalition agreement on a joint slate for national, provincial and local elections to be held on April 24.

The agreement was signed by the DS, the DSHV, the New Party, Together for Serbia, Together for Sumadija, and the Movement for Krajina.

"The DSHV signed the agreement on the coalition to be headed by the DS because that party has the most understanding for the Croat minority in Vojvodina," said DSHV leader Tomislav Zigmanov.

"We have agreed to hold rotating seats in the parliaments of Serbia and Vojvodina as well as in a dozen other municipalities and towns where members of the Croat community live," he said.

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