Serbia-Croatia Relations Strained by the Past               

Relations between Serbia and Croatia have not been making progress for some time now, rather they are often in crisis, which is also helped by the sharpening rhetoric, especially during election periods, Serbian and Croatian experts agree. They don’t expect any progress in relations between the two countries of key importance to stability in the Western Balkans until both turn to the future and leave the past behind.

Open issues from the past between the two countries are difficult to avoid, bearing in mind the war they waged against each other from 1991 to 1995. The problem is that Belgrade and Zagreb, despite some progress in relations after 2000, have not managed to develop mechanisms and relations that would facilitate the resolving of open issues, and they often amp up their rhetoric for the sake of political points at home.
The lack of communication and cooperation also became evident in Serbia’s membership negotiations with the EU. Last year, Croatia on two occasions placed reservations on the opening of chapters in the talks with Serbia.
The government in Zagreb insisted on the resolving of certain questions, such as the universal jurisdiction of the Serbian judiciary for processing war crimes, regarding Chapter 23 – judiciary and fundamental rights, or textbooks for the Croatian minority in Serbia, in Chapter 26 on education and culture.
The Belgrade authorities, on the other hand, believe that these are issues that ought to be resolved in bilateral relations rather than in the membership talks.
Shedding light on the fate of the missing in the conflicts, the opening of Yugoslav archives, position of national minorities and the border are also open issues. It would be best to open the border issue as the most important one, believes the head of Serbia’s negotiating team, Tanja Miščević.
Blocking Serbia
Speaking at a conference on Serbia-Croatia relations, held in Belgrade on Feb. 7 (Tuesday), Miščević said that Croatia, itself having experienced the blocking of negotiations, must be aware that bilateral issues should not be resolved through blocking, but rather through openness and readiness for talks.
“The right approach in the best national interest of Croatia would be Serbia’s accession to the EU, period. Just like it is in the best national interest of Serbia that Croatia is a member of the EU. I deeply believe that,” Miščević said at the gathering organized by the Center for Foreign Policy, with support from the Hanns Seidel Foundation.
She further said that on those grounds good arguments could be developed, which could help in resolving bilateral issues.
Miščević said it did not benefit Croatia to have non-EU states as its neighbors, adding that it was expensive and inefficient, as revealed by the migrant crisis.
“It suits Serbia that someone who is so close and understands all the issues Serbia must go through in the reform process, can be the best advocate of Serbia’s membership in the EU,” she said.
According to Miščević, Serbia could soon, in late February or early March, besides Chapter 26 for which Croatia has in the meantime lifted its reservations, open two more chapters – Chapter 20 on enterprise and industrial policy and Chapter 29 – customs union.
Center for Foreign Policy director Aleksandra Joksimović said that the EU should create a framework that would prevent the use of its mechanisms, such as decision-making by consensus, for blocking.
Enlargement as a Means of Pressure
Zagreb Faculty of Political Science professor Dejan Jović said on Feb. 7 that it was in Croatia’s interest to see the continued use of EU enlargement as a legitimate mechanism of pressure on candidate countries.
“EU enlargement is in Croatia’s interest because enlargement has become an instrument of pressure on candidate countries, which it partly was during Croatia’s accession to the EU, too, and in that sense is highly effective as a means of foreign policy of all member countries,” he told reporters.
He recalled that Croatia had had to concede a protected fishing area to Italy and back down in the border arbitration case with Slovenia.
He added that Croatia was not doing anything contrary to EU rules and added that as long as it wished to join the EU Serbia could always expect certain bilateral conditions, either from Croatia or some other EU member state.
Jović, who was an adviser to former Croatian president Ivo Josipović, also said that it was in Croatia’s interest to continue the process, but that he was not sure it would be in the country’s interest for “Serbia to join the EU tomorrow.”
Jović went on to say that for a while now “nothing too serious has happened” in relations between Serbia and Croatia, i.e. that there are “some better and worse moments” and that, in the long term, he expected the status quo to go on, because those relations exceeded the bilateral framework.
Relations Between Citizens Better than Relations Between Politicians
Aleksandra Joksimović said she disagreed with a recent statement by former Croatian president Josipović, that relations between the two countries had never been worse, and said that there was in fact a lack of communication, in which elections in both countries had also played a part.
“At this time, since the forming of the new government, we still do not have that kind of communication opened at the highest level,” she said. Serbia got a new cabinet in August, while Croatia got it in September 2016.
Belgrade Faculty of Political Science professor Ivo Visković said that the past played a significant part in Serbia-Croatia relations, with big differences in interpreting the past.
He said he did not believe that relations between Serbia and Croatia would improve conspicuously soon and that he thought a “policy of baby steps” should be chosen, while the big questions should be left for a later time.
Hrvoje Klasić, a docent at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, said that relations between the Serbs and Croats were much better than relations between the representatives of Serbian and Croatian authorities, adding that it was in Croatia’s interest to have a developed and stable Serbia as a neighbor.
He further said that the fight against nationalism should be a priority in both Serbia and Croatia, along with turning to the future, and added that it was important to understand that there wasn’t just one stability factor in the region.
Klasić said that reviewing the past and present from different perspectives and empathy should be developed as early as in school, instead of nurturing only the cult of the victim, while others were reproached for crimes that were denied when it came to one’s own side.
Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy professor Dubravka Stojanović said that, even though there were some positive changes where history textbooks were concerned, there was still no distance, new understanding of the causes and occasions of the war or the Serbs’ and Croats’ own role and responsibility.
“If they stuck to the textbooks, the Serbs and Croats could resume that war tomorrow,” she said.