The prime ministers of Serbia and Croatia expressed their readiness to resolve tensions at a meeting in Belgrade yesterday (16 January). EURACTIV Serbia reports.
Ivica Da?i? 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 Milanovi? 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 Marka? – 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 Da?i?.
Milanovi? 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.
Milanovi? and Da?i? 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
Milanovi?’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 Nikoli? 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.
Milanovi? said in Belgrade that he and Da?i? could have met sooner and voiced hope that the tension had been lessened.
His visit was also welcomed by Croatian President Ivo Josipovi?, who, however, reiterated he would not go to Serbia until Nikoli? changes his rhetoric, which has criticised as being very severe.
Nikoli? stated on 16 January that Milanovi?'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.
Croatia fought for its independence from the former Yugoslavia in a war which lasted from 1991 to 1995. Atrocities were committed by both sides during the fratricidal conflict.
Some of the questions that still burden bilateral relations include the fate of the people who disappeared during the war, the return of Serbian refugees who left Croatian during the war, war crimes, the division of the Former Yugoslavia's property, and mutual lawsuits for genocide.
The EU urged for 'prudence' in October 2011 as tensions grew between Croatia and Serbia, which indicted Croatian nationals over war crimes.
The arrest of Croatian veteran Tihomir Purda in Bosnia in March 2011 under an arrest warrant issued by Serbia for war crimes ignited tensions.
Belgrade recently criticised Croatian PM Jadranka Kosor for her statement during the anniversary of Operation Storm in 1995, because she praised generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Marka? [more] for their work in that operation. In 2011 the two were convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at first instance for the war crimes commited during that operation. At second instance last November, they were cleared of accusations [more], which provoked massive outrage in Serbia.