Serbia-Croatia relations strained by the past

A challenge to Serbia-Croatia relations: Refugees at the Berkasavo border crossing, October 2015. [Trocaire/Flickr]

Relations between Belgrade and Zagreb are stuck. Frequently in crisis mode, their ties are beset by sharp rhetoric, especially during election periods, say Serbian and Croatian political analysts. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

No progress can be expected in relations between the two Balkan states until both leave the past fully behind. Outstanding issues are difficult to avoid, bearing in mind the brutal war they waged against each other from 1991 to 1995.

The problem is that Belgrade and Zagreb, despite some progress since 2000, have not managed to develop mechanisms and relations that would facilitate the resolving of festering problems, and they often indulge hostile rhetoric towards each other for the sake of political point scoring at home.

This fragile state of affairs also became evident in Serbia’s membership negotiations with the EU. Last year, on two seperate occasions, Croatia expressed reservations about the opening of chapters in the talks with Serbia.

Tensions grow over Serbian accession talks

Croatia’s refusal to agree to the opening of Chapter 23 in Serbia’s EU accession negotiations has heightened tensions between the two countries, which, over the past six months, have grown significantly cooler. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

Zagreb insisted on the resolving of certain questions, such as the universal jurisdiction of the Serbian judiciary for processing war crimes, regarding Chapter 23, on judiciary and fundamental rights, and textbooks for the Croatian minority in Serbia, in Chapter 26, on education and culture.

Belgrade, on the other hand, believes that these are issues which ought to be resolved in bilateral relations rather than in the membership talks.

Shedding light on the fate of the missing in the civil war, the opening of Yugoslav archives, the situation of national minorities, and the border, are also open issues.

It would be best to open the topic of the border, 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 7 February, Miščević said that Croatia, having experienced the blockage of negotiations, must be aware that bilateral issues should not be resolved that way, 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 organised 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.

Serbian, Croatian PMs meet to boost ties

The prime ministers of Serbia and Croatia expressed their readiness to resolve tensions at a meeting in Belgrade yesterday (16 January). EURACTIV Serbia reports.

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 refugee 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, on the 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.

Continuing enlargement

Zagreb Faculty of Political Science professor Dejan Jović said on 7 February 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.

Croatian PM: EU-hopeful countries need motivation to continue with reform

The European Union must find the right narrative to address the frustrations of the Balkan countries, which are losing hope of joining the bloc as EU appetite for enlargement fades, said Croatia Prime Minister Andrej Plenković in an interview with EURACTIV.com in Davos.

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, for example, that there are “some better and worse moments” and that, in the long term, he expected the status quo to remain, because those relations exceeded the bilateral framework.