By Gabriel Partos
BBC South-East Europe analyst
Three former Yugoslav foes are redoubling their efforts to resolve the refugee problem that has harmed relations for nearly 15 years.
Some refugees get citizenship but depend on welfare
The governments of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro are drawing up individual action plans that will be combined into a single document aimed at sorting out the refugee issue, once and for all, by the end of 2006.
The three governments took on this task when they signed an agreement in Sarajevo at the end of January.
It has been described as the highest-level three-way agreement since the Dayton accords brought peace to Bosnia at the end of 1995.
The war left a legacy of about three million refugees and internally displaced persons.
Robert Robinson, deputy director for Europe at the Geneva headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has no doubts about the significance of the Sarajevo deal.
"I think that it's the most important document that has come out of the area in recent years. But we always keep in mind that the devil is in the detail."
Along with the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the UNHCR is involved in what has been dubbed a "three-by-three" agreement.
One of the tasks of the UNHCR is to help provide a database with accurate figures of the number of refugees still left. The fresh approach is already paying some dividends.
Until now, refugee numbers have been based on annual estimates - not actual recounts - which were based on the original registration of refugees dating back to the war years of 1991-95.
In the first few weeks of this year, Serbia completed a recount of its refugee population of Serbs who fled Croatia or Bosnia. According to these figures, which are to be published in April, there are only about half as many refugees as the estimated 270,000 - the figure that was still used by the UNHCR as recently as 31 December 2004.
Dragisa Dabetic, Serbia's Commissioner for Refugees, says the sharp drop in numbers is due to the decisions of many refugees in recent years to take Serb citizenship.
"It's just a formal change of status. Instead of being refugees, a lot of them have become social welfare cases. So their problem is not solved; statistics are not that important."
However, those who have taken the citizenship of the country where they sought refuge are no longer counted as refugees. As a result, many of the bilateral political frictions their continuing plight previously created can now be largely consigned to the past.
The big drop in the number of people still claiming refugee status will also make it easier to implement the Sarajevo agreement by the end of next year.
All the more so as a registration of refugees and internally displaced persons, now under way in Bosnia until the end of March, is expected to produce a similar trend.
Serbs fled Croatia's Krajina region in 1995: Many will not return
Early returns suggest that the true numbers are down from an estimated 330,000 at the end of 2004 to probably less than half that number.
In Bosnia's case, the overwhelming majority of those still seeking to return to their pre-war homes are internally displaced persons, rather than refugees from other countries.
They live on either side of the boundary that divides the two entities: the Federation that is home to most of Bosnia's Muslims (or Bosnjaks) and Croats; and the Serb Republic, a large majority of whose inhabitants are ethnic Serbs. Thanks to the continuing presence of international peacekeepers, Bosnia has become a much more secure place.
"The situation has improved dramatically", says Udo Jenz, the UNHCR's representative in Sarajevo, "and therefore there are no 'no-go' areas left in the country which are not touched by the return momentum that has been created in the last few years."
Under a succession of international high representatives, Bosnia has also made big strides in removing another major obstacle in the path of refugee returns - ensuring people's right to take possession of their pre-war homes.
Some 95% of such properties have been reclaimed by their original owners or tenants. In many cases, though, the returnees quickly sell their pre-war homes, and then move back to the areas where they settled over the past decade.
The EU began peacekeeping duties in Bosnia in December
In spite of positive steps taken by the Croatian government, the problem of reclaiming properties has not been resolved so successfully in Croatia.
"When you go down to the level of municipalities there are a lot of formal and informal obstacles. Property rights are now the number one biggest obstacle to Serbs who want to go back to Croatia," says Dragisa Dabetic.
Zagreb says it is doing its utmost to help returning Serbs deal with the problems they encounter. That could be a potentially expensive process for Zagreb in terms of housing, pensions and social welfare payments.
Croatia would be the main recipient of returning refugees if the Sarajevo agreement were to encourage large numbers to go back to their former homes.
Even on the new, reduced figures now being compiled, there could be around 130,000 Serbs with the right to return to Croatia.
But Gordan Markotic, Croatia's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, says Zagreb can and will shoulder the burden.
"Our financial resources and our economic level are much higher than those of the other two countries," he said. "So we have a bigger potential to complete the whole process, in spite of the fact that we could also have the biggest number of returning refugees."
In practice, few would now expect more than 10-20% of the remaining Serb refugees to return to Croatia.
Most refugees who wanted to go home have already done so, and those who have not are, by and large, integrated into Serb or Bosnian Serb society.
For those who do want to return, the prospects look better than ever.
Zagreb is eager to prove its democratic credentials to the European Union, particularly since the EU postponed the start of accession talks, originally scheduled for 17 March. The EU cited Croatia's failure to co-operate fully with The Hague war crimes tribunal.
"The objective of a country like Croatia is European integration", says Robert Robinson. "So if they can see a closure on this very difficult chapter of life, if they can see that closure will bring them closer to their objective, they are going to embrace it."
Although further behind than Croatia in forging close links with the EU, Serbia and Bosnia are also willing to accept new responsibilities.
The Sarajevo agreement reflects a readiness on the part of the three signatories to deal with the refugee issue themselves and not wait for international agencies to tackle it.
There is now cautious optimism among the former Yugoslav republics' foreign partners that the Sarajevo agreement will resolve the refugee problem by the agreed deadline.
But this optimism does not extend to another, separate refugee issue: the estimated 200,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians registered in Serbia as internally displaced persons from Kosovo, which has been administered by the UN since 1999.
Six years after the end of the Kosovo conflict, only a handful of these people have risked going back to Kosovo, where they face uncertainty and often a lack of security. Riots in March 2004, which prompted another 4,000 Serbs to flee, have proved a serious setback to those trying to promote refugee returns.
The Sarajevo agreement provides a positive example for dealing with the wartime legacy of refugees. But for now Kosovo does not appear to be ready to take up that challenge.
There is even concern that a decision on Kosovo's long-term status may lead to further population movements, perhaps within the next year. Depending on how that status is defined, some Serbs may decide to leave Kosovo, while groups of ethnic Albanians could move there from parts of southern Serbia.