Croatian president has initiated new policy towards Balkans

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic has adopted a new policy that is friendlier towards neighbouring countries. However, even though this may improve relations in the region, it has been a source of controversy at home, writes Marta Szpala of the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), in an April paper.

The following commentary was authored by Marta Szpala. 

"On 14 April, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic gave a speech in parliament during his visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, expressing his regret about his country's policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. He has also met the president of Serbia, Boris Tadic, three times over the past month.

Such moves are part of the broader concept of a new active regional policy, which Josipovic has inaugurated since taking office this January.

This concept envisages the creation of a friendly atmosphere for co-operation with other countries in the region and the resolution of disputed issues, which are predominantly linked to the consequences of the war in the Balkans.

However, to achieve those goals, Croatia will have to revise its historical policy, and above all its attitude to the main myth of modern Croatian national identity, namely the legend of the 'Homeland War' of 1991–1995. However, such activities are opposed by some of the Croatian public, and have given rise to a debate on the internal political scene.

The president is initiating a new open approach towards the countries in the region…

When Ivo Josipovic, who is linked to the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP), was taking office this January, he promised to embark on an active international policy and to change relations with other countries in the region.

As the plan has been implemented, relations with Serbia have intensified on an unprecedented scale, and the policy towards Bosnia has changed.

Over the past month, Ivo Josipovic has met Serbian President Boris Tadic three times: on 24 March in Opatija, on 26–27 March in Brussels and on 16 April in Pecs. The activity of the president, who has constitutional powers to jointly shape foreign policy, has been supported by the SDP.

Relations between Serbs and Croats have so far been marked by numerous disputes over historical issues, primarily the legacy of the 1991–1995 war in which both nations were engaged. Unresolved problems, such as the delimitation of the state border, ethnic minorities, the return of refugees, accountability for war crimes, and especially the mutual genocide claims brought to the International Criminal Tribunal, have adversely affected relations between the two countries.

Josipovic's activity shows his desire to resolve these disputes successfully, albeit gradually. This has been proven by the recent discussion on the withdrawal of mutual claims regarding the crimes committed during the war and attempts to settle the dispute out of court. These claims have had an adverse effect on relations between the two countries since 1999, and the manner in which they have been handled is intended to serve as a model solution for the settlement of all other bilateral disputes.

A change can also be seen in the president's approach to Serbia, which is now perceived as Croatia's main partner, with whom the region's key problems, such as the development of economic co-operation and combating organised crime and terrorism, should be dealt with in partnership.

Furthermore, on 14 April Josipovic visited Bosnia, where he delivered a speech in parliament and visited the village of Ahmici, where Bosnian Croats killed around one hundred Bosnian Muslims in April 1993. During the visit, the president expressed repentance for Croatia's policy towards Bosnia in the 1990s, which – as he said – had been aimed primarily at dividing the country, and had thus contributed to an increase in the number of war casualties.

This act of admitting Croatian responsibility for the war in Bosnia is an unprecedented move. Similarly, his criticism of the support Croatia offered to the independent Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia formed within the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina may also enable reconciliation between Bosniaks and Croats, especially because Croatian politicians have so far maintained that Zagreb's activity during the war was irreproachable.

… and is provoking a debate at home

Both the Croatian-Serbian rapprochement and the change in Zagreb's approach to Bosnia will [increase the] need to confront the previous historical policy conducted by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which has governed the country almost uninterruptedly since the 1990s (with the exception of the period between 2000 and 2003). The key embodiment of this policy is the Declaration on the Homeland War, passed in 2000, which stated that Croatian activity during the Balkan war was just, defensive and legitimate.

The Declaration has also reinforced the image of Croatia as a war victim, and of its soldiers as national heroes. Actions taken by the Croatian Democratic Union were aimed at cutting short the debate on Franjo Tudjman's policy in the 1990s, and on the nature of Croatia's participation in military actions. This kind of policy has not only hindered Croatia's co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, but also the process of reconciliation with the country's neighbours.

Josipovic's recent statements, which have challenged Croatia's policy towards its Balkan neighbours, have provoked a sharp reaction from representatives of the HDZ, including Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor. Andrija Hebrang, the HDZ's former presidential candidate, has called for an impeachment process to be launched, accusing the president of unconstitutional activity. In turn, Prime Minister Kosor has accused Josipovic of historical revisionism and of acting in contrast to his country's interests. Criticism has also been expressed by representatives of the war veterans' association, who are an influential political group in Croatia, as well as by some of those Croats who live in Bosnia.

Forecasts

Given Josipovic's strong position on the internal political scene (at present, he is the most popular Croatian politician) and the likely takeover of power by the Social Democratic Party after the elections in 2011, one may expect that the model of relations with the neighbours which he has propagated will become a durable element of Croatian foreign policy in the future, a fact which could have a positive impact on the stability of the entire region.

The exceptionally favourable public response to Josipovic's announcement in Sarajevo (58% support and 13% have no opinion) indicates that Croatian society is ready for a debate on their own past.

A significant decline in support for the HDZ and Prime Minister Kosor is also to a certain extent an effect of erosion of that party's vision for the state. Another reason is the increasing dislike of the role Bosnian Croats and war veterans have played in Croatian politics, as well as the special privileges they receive.

All those factors may help Croatia to open a genuine debate on its history and the shape of its national identity."

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