Ivica Dačić of Serbia said the two countries needed to improve their relations for the sake of regional stability. He spoke at a news conference with his Croatian counterpart Zoran Milanović after two hours of meetings.
Tensions between Belgrade and Zagreb reached a peak in November 2012, when appellate judges at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague overturned the convictions of two Croatians - Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač - for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against Serb civilians in a 1995 military blitz (see background).
“We cannot change the past, but we can affect the present and the future,” said Dačić.
Milanović said he went to Belgrade to see whether Croatia and Serbia could enhance their relations, stressing that all issues remaining between them were problems from the past.
The two prime ministers discussed issues created primarily during the conflict after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, as well as regional and economic cooperation and European integration. They agreed to start the work on joint commissions that are to handle a number of issues – including refugees, processing war crimes and border-related matters.
Milanović and Dačić also talked about the problem of the two states’ mutual genocide lawsuits before the International Court of Justice, but, they did not go into detail.
The Serbian prime minister said it was not good to wait until 2014 and the beginning of the court proceedings to resolve the matter, adding that the two sides will continue to seek ways to solve the problem.
First visit in nearly four years
Milanović’s visit to Belgrade is the first visit by a Croatian prime minister since March 2009, when then-Prime Mininster Ivo Sanader was in Belgrade.
In the months after the forming of the new Serbian government last year and, foremost, the election of Serbian Progressive Party candidate Tomislav Nikolić for president, relations between Serbia and Croatia had cooled. The tension was also fuelled by the Hague tribunal’s acquittal of Gotovina and Markac of crimes committed during the military Operation Storm in 1995.
Milanović said in Belgrade that he and Dačić could have met sooner and voiced hope that the tension had been lessened.
His visit was also welcomed by Croatian President Ivo Josipović, who, however, reiterated he would not go to Serbia until Nikolić changes his rhetoric, which has criticised as being very severe.
Nikolić stated on 16 January that Milanović's visit to Belgrade was "insincere" and an attempt by Croatia to "peacefully sail into the EU."
Croatia is to become the EU's 28th member in July.
Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations are important elements of European integration and the Croatian prime minister in Belgrade expressed support to Serbia en route to the EU, underscoring that it is not “a phrase,” but is rather in the interest of Croatia.
Belgrade and Zagreb are denying that the visit was prodded by Brussels and the European Commission’s enlargement spokesperson Peter Stano pointed out that the Commission believed its partners should decide on their own whom and when to meet.
“We incite and encourage any step that leads to the improvement of relations and cooperation. That is good for the citizens, the countries and the region,” he said.