Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Serbia and Croatia - Mission Possible

Adelina Marini, January 18, 2013

Until the end of 2012 and even the beginning of 2013 a warming of the relations between Serbia and Croatia looked very unlikely after they deteriorated seriously in November. Then the Hague tribunal stirred the spirits in the Balkans, acquitting key figures from the war that followed after the secession of Croatia from former Yugoslavia in the beginning of the 1990s. This was the reason why the already cool relations after the coming to power of the new leadership in Belgrade reached the freezing point. Croatia's President Ivo Josipovic is tenacious in his refusal to meet his Serbian counterpart Tomislav Nikolic because of the remarks of the latter that Vukovar is a Serb town, while Nikolic claims for his part that Josipovic is using that remark to reject a meeting.

The situation seemed a stalemate in the autumn last year, when Serbia reacted really sharply against Croatia because of the acquittals of the generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac. Yet in the first days of 2013, however, there was a talk about a meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries - Zoran Milanovic and Ivica Dacic. There was information that an option was sought a meeting to take place on neutral ground, Brussels was mentioned, it was said that the first half of the year was the time horizon. Literally until last week Croatia's Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic claimed in interviews for various media that work on a summit was ongoing. Until the surprise this week, when it was officially reported that there would be a summit between Dacic and Milanovic. Not on neutral ground, but in Belgrade; not some time in the first semester of 2013, but on January 16th. Journalists had only a few hours to get accreditations for the event.

The surprisingly fast organisation of the summit raised many questions and doubts whether it was not the result of pressure from Brussels. It is not hard to come to such a conclusion, given that the EU leaders focused especially much on Croatia's regional relations in their conclusions from their December EU summit. According to official Belgrade and Zagreb, though, the summit was under the initiative of the Croatian prime minister. As his Serbian counterpart explained before journalists after their two-hour long meeting in the Serb capital, Milanovic called Dacic on the phone with a proposal for a meeting which Dacic gladly accepted.

The European Commission answered as neutrally as possible to the questions of this website. The spokesman of EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, Peter Stano, said that he did not feel a particular need to comment "on every meeting in our partner countries, but in general we always welcome and encourage all the steps which lead to strengthening of good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation". And regarding the Belgrade summit on January 16th, he said it "is just a natural and logical for the two neighbours whose interests are so entwined, that there are contacts going on all levels, including the high level meetings, since this is for the benefit of the countries, their citizens and also of the region", the spokesman said.

During the meeting, the two premiers, who come from one and the same political family - they are socialists - created the impression that they are fully aware of what they are facing, that they have outlived the past and are ready to look together into the future. By the way, the Serbian prime minister said on multiple occasions regarding relations with Croatia that it is high time to turn to the future. According to him, the relations between Serbia and Croatia are key for the stability in the entire region and that is why it is important the two countries to cooperate on all issues between them. Dacic explained that those issues can be grouped into three main sections. The first unites the open issues from the common past of Serbia and Croatia. There are no new issues, Dacic underscored, mentioning only one - the latest verdicts of the Hague tribunal - without elaborating how exactly does this issue fit into the "open issues from the past".

The second segment of issues is economic cooperation which the two countries really need right now, given the severe situation in which they find themselves. Trade volume between the two countries is around 700 million euros, in Dacic's words, and the Croatian investments in Serbia are a huge. In view of the upcoming membership of Croatia to the EU, it is possible some changes to ensue, but in general the Serbian prime minister expressed hope that the economic cooperation will deepen and more Serbian companies will enter Croatia. The third group of issues is related to the European integration. Premier Milanovic stated his firm support for the eurointegration of Serbia not once saying that it is in the interest of Croatia. He reiterated that in Belgrade too, underlining that it was not just a polite phrase, but a real interest.

The two agreed the joint committee between the two countries to begin work on all open issues, as the two said that all the issues are of the competences and powers of their governments. Milanovic also said that among the issues between the two countries there were no new ones, aside from the fact that half a year was lost. According to him, lately the emotions were a little too much and called some issues to be approached in cold blood. The two avoided specific questions, especially those related to the past. Asked about the mutual accusations of genocide, Ivica Dacic said that he and Milanovic did not manage to avoid the issue. He added that they did not discuss specifically how to solve the problem and that it would be a subject of future talks. Milanovic said only that Dacic told everything on the issue. "This topic is a burden for our relations and that is known. We will seek a solution", the Croatian premier concluded.

And if the summit between the two prime ministers really created a feeling of positivism and optimism between Belgrade and Zagreb, Serbia's President Tomislav Nikolic reminded that the problems between the two countries are in fact serious. He told Croatian and Serbian journalists that he expected in Belgrade Ivo Josipovic not Zoran Milanovic. The issue was raised during the press conference of the two prime ministers, which revealed some pressure between Nikolic and Dacic. The Serbian premier said Nikolic was informed of the summit. He wished such a meeting between the two presidents to take place as soon as possible, but underlined that it had no connection with the activities of the governments. An answer fully in the context of the statements of both prime ministers that all problems between the two countries were entirely in the powers of their governments. In other words, if there is good will, they could be solved gradually.

Of course, not on all issues there is agreement between the two countries, but the important thing is work to begin, was the message of the two leaders who looked somewhat impatient such work to begin. President Josipovic for his part refrained from a direct response to Nikolic's criticism, but supported the Belgrade summit. The condition that Croatia put so that Josipovic could meet Nikolic remains unchanged. And that is Nikolic to apologise for his statements.Tomislav Nikolic has a long record of ill-measured and provocative statements, dating long ago. Nikolic is a former member of the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, which he left because of disagreement on Serbia's European path, which Nikolic fully embraces. He often stated that he also supported the project "Great Serbia". He is quoted saying that he would not support diplomatic relations with Croatia because the country "occupies Serbian territory".

His latest statement is in an interview for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung where he said that Vukovar was a Serb town. Nikolic spoke sharply also in response to General Gotovina's remark that all Serbs were welcome to return to Croatia, saying that probably with this Gotovina intended to let them gather together in order to hit them again.

In general, the reactions to the summit in Zagreb were positive, although there was criticism as well. Former Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic, although welcoming the summit, disagreed with Dacic's opinion that the Serb-Croatian relations were key for the stability of the region. He said it would have been more important at the moment Milanovic to have gone to Ljubljana which has still not started ratifying the Croatian accession treaty because of the unresolved dispute around Ljubljanska banka. This would hardly be a successful mission, given that the government in Slovenia is instable because of corruption scandals that erupted in the end of last and the beginning of this year, which is why early elections there cannot be excluded. A similar thesis expressed political analysts in Zagreb as well, but in general against the backdrop of the growing introvertness of Zoran Milanovic's government due to the upcoming local elections in the spring, his Belgrade initiative is well accepted.

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