Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Serbia and Croatia Claim They Are Mature To Leave the Past Behind. Are they?

Adelina Marini, October 22, 2013

On November 16th 2012 The Hague Tribunal pronounced the acquittals for two key Croatian generals from the war on the separation from former Yugoslavia. The way they were welcomed in Zagreb and the political reactions were the drop that put the relations between Croatia and Serbia in the freezing point. A meeting between the heads of state from the then perspective looked even more impossible than before when Croatia's President Ivo Josipovic expected his newly elected Serbian counterpart to apologise for his remark that Vukovar was a Serb city. Back then the situation looked scary. On October 16th 2013, however, in Belgrade, the two presidents were trying to smile for the cameras and to mark the beginning of normal bilateral relations.

A coincidence or not, but Josipovic's visit in the Serb capital coincided with the publication of the European Commission progress reports for the countries from the enlargement process which leave the impression that Serbia is the big score-maker this year. And although many things have changed for almost a year, the unresolved issues remain.

What has changed?

Both for Croatia and Serbia at the time was crucial to repair their relations so that the former can get a final approval to join the EU on July 1st 2013, and the latter to start accession talks. For the purpose they began talks on high and not that high level on finding a solution to all the issues that remained open after the end of the war and the break-up of former Yugoslavia. The only obstacle before the continuation of warming and normalisation of relations was precisely the summit between the presidents. Ivo Josipovic spent in Serbia two days during which he had a speech [in Croatian] in the Serb Parliament, met representatives of the Croatian minority, had a meeting with the prime minister. He was accompanied most of the time by Nikolic. The TV footage showed that this was not an easy step for Tomislav Nikolic who has still not publicly renounced his past as a Serb radical and his attempts to distribute on an equal basis the responsibility for the war on all former Yugoslav republics do not meet understanding and are often a reason for indignation.

Ivo Josipovic, for his part, was trying to demonstrate openness and played very well his role of a president of a EU member state - mature and ready to do what the EU does best - talk and seek compromises. Tomislav Nikolic looked as a man who is still not ready to make the big confession, but is aware that there is no way back. Instead, there is a way forward which was quite evident during the visit by the two leaders in a primary school of the Croatian minority in Vojvodina. Although this visit was being prepared for several months and possibly every detail was worked out, the two presidents were caught completely off guard by a simple child's question: "How were you as kids?" A question naive but at the same time not quite harmless.

Ivo Josipovic was first to recover smilingly saying that he was a good kid, passing on to Nikolic whose face radiated seriousness, preoccupation and a desire all this to end as soon as possible. This question and Josipovic's reaction, though, changed radically his expression, which shone to reveal an unforced radiant smile. He, too, said he was a good kid. And although the smiles and good mood remained on the faces of every one, without an answer remained the question whether they can also be good politicians as adults so they can make the future of children better?

A good exit from the bad history?

The biggest challenge for both countries at the moment is to find the best possible exit from the worst history that binds them. In that sense, a huge step forward was made by putting on the table the biggest issues. Ivo Josipovic presented his country's conditions for normalisation at the most important place - Serbia's national assembly. In a 15-minute long speech, which he read very carefully without affording himself not even a second of improvisation, he pointed out that "when we go back to the open issues from the past without closing them, we lose a sense of reality and perspective. We have to learn from the past, but with the corresponding respect for the past our obligation is life today and life tomorrow". In support of his words, he chose to quote a very symbolic personality in Serbia - the murdered prime minister Zoran Djindjic, with the words that "life cannot wait". The decision to quote precisely Djindjic is a very strong signal because the killed Serbian premier is a symbol of what Croatia would like Serbia to be - a democratic, reformed, predictable, Europeanised country.

This can only happen when there is political will. A will to recognise the past. Josipovic did not hesitate to name publicly in parliament what Croatia thinks of the war. "The terror that Croatia went through in the 1990s we remember as a fight for our survival, freedom and independence. We come back to the pictures of devastated towns and villages, the many crimes and the unfortunate fates. Among those who suffered and those with unfortunate fates there were, we know that, many our fellow citizens Serbs. Even if we assess some historical circumstances in a different way, we have to be united in one thing: we have to be united in condemning every crime because only then will we be able to send a message to the future generations that these crimes should never come back".

From this point of view, the most important issue for Croatia is knowing the whereabouts of 1689 missing persons from the war, of whom 953 are Croatian citizens and 736 of Serb nationality. In this regard, there is an example of good cooperation on locating mass graves - in Sotin, near Vukovar, but more is needed. In an interview with the Serb national TV Josipovic said there were people in Serbia who knew what happened to those people and where they were are buried. According to him, there is no reason why this information not to be shared so that their families can finally find peace.

The second very important question is about ensuring home and pensions for the refugees and the returnees. According to Josipovic, there are no longer political obstacles or danger for the security of the displaced if they decide to return to Croatia or for the Croats in Serbia. But in order for this to happen, it is necessary to ensure they get homes, their property and jobs returned.

Tomislav Nikolic avoided to comment on those issues, underscoring, however, the problems that are of interest to Serbia. He put a finger directly in Croatia's wound by saying that the Serbs have no right to use their language nor are they proportionately represented in the local authorities, the public administration, justice or police. And although he did not name Vukovar specifically, Nikolic said: "Often their security is endangered and lately there is a manifestation of ethnically motivated incidents and hate speech against the Serbs and Serbia. In the school textbooks the Serbs are qualified as occupiers and guerrillas. Is this the way the future generations will be taught in peace and tolerance?", Nikolic asked during their joint news conference. President Josipovic promised to check out the situation with the textbooks.

Another very important for Belgrade issue is Croatia to withdraw its complaints of genocide in the International Criminal Court against Serbia. "Friends do not sue each other, they agree outside the court", Nikolic recalled. Zagreb, however, puts as a precondition Belgrade to provide information on the missing people. And regarding the rights of the Serbs in Croatia to writing and language, Ivo Josipovic called in his interview on the Serbs to understand the reasons for the tensions specifically in Vukovar, provoked by the putting of boards in Cyrillic. "What Serbia needs to understand is that in Vukovar a horrible crime was committed. Vukovar was literally ruined and there are people who cannot outlive that, no matter that the war is over. I do not justify them but am only explaining what it is all about. This must be understood in some way. We need to talk to these people", the Croatian president said.

The European Commission has detected the progress in the bilateral relations of Serbia not only with Croatia, but with Bosnia and Herzegovina too. But it needs to be consolidated, the Commission says in its report. "Many bilateral problems remain unresolved, including as regards minorities and issues stemming from the break-up of the former Yugoslavia such as border demarcation. Fundamentally opposed views of recent history burden relations, as does the prevalence of inter-ethnic problems. Political and other leaders need to show more responsibility and take a stronger stand to condemn hate speech and other manifestations of intolerance when it occurs. More work is needed to hold perpetrators to account for war crimes, to address pending issues concerning refugees and internally displaced persons and to normalise relations on the situation of minorities. There has been insufficient progress on missing persons".

The Commission's assessment practically repeats all the open issues. The summit in Belgrade last week shows that, indeed, Serbia and Croatia are mature to start solving them one by one. The big test, however, will come with Zagreb's and Belgrade's consistency, as well as with the EU's power to demand what is necessary. Because, after all, progress in the bilateral relations is only one of many conditions for a European membership. Serbia has quite a lot of other problems to address, like corruption, organised crime and the need of reforms in every area. A road which Croatia already passed and is ready to help. This is what is important.

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