Croatia and Serbia have revived their simmering feud in the midst of critical political turning points in both countries. Nationalist rhetoric has again gained prominence following the installation of Serbia’s new government, and with Croatia facing general elections September 11. The current disputes demonstrate how conflicting historical interpretations can undermine regional stability by fueling resentment over numerous contemporary issues.
Historical reconciliation over the war in the 1990s does not mean the equalization of guilt but rather the acceptance of comparative responsibility. The anti-civilian violence launched by Belgrade and its proxies in 1991 led to the occupation of Croatian territories and the slaughter and expulsion of thousands of civilians. Belgrade’s denials of responsibility have been evident in attempts by some Serbian politicians to rehabilitate the image of Slobodan Milosevic, as well as the return to parliament of Vojislav Seselj—a key militia leader in the attack on Croatia—who captured more than 8 percent of the popular vote and 22 out of 250 seats in Serbia’s April elections.
For its part, Zagreb must take responsibility in fully investigating the murder of several hundred Serb civilians during Operation Storm that liberated occupied Croatian territories in August 1995, even if the government did not orchestrate the massacres. The current scrutiny of war crimes is much more intense than it was in World War II, when the Allies overlooked the massacres of German civilians as an unfortunate byproduct of liberation from Nazism.
Comparisons made by some Serb officials between Croatia today and the Nazi-allied, wartime Independent State of Croatia (NDH) are not only inaccurate but also create a climate of fear and anger in both capitals. Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovac rightly dismissed accusations by Serbian Labor Minister Aleksandar Vulin that Croatia’s interior minister, Vlaho Orepic, was turning the country into the NDH.
For his part, Orepic has stirred controversy by claiming Serbs currently comprise under 30 percent of the population of the city of Vukovar, and are therefore not entitled to use their language and alphabet in local affairs, as stipulated in Croatian law. Not providing proof of false residence registrations among Serbs creates the impression that Zagreb is intent on denying minority rights.
Nonetheless, Serbia’s allegations that Croatia is introducing “racial laws” against its Serb minority do not contribute to improving relations at a time when Serbia itself is being criticized for its faltering media freedoms, its politically corrupted judicial system and rising jingoistic nationalism. Conversely, a recent statement by Croatia’s former prime minister and Social Democrat leader, Zoran Milanovic, denigrating Serbs as a “small nation” have only added fuel to the flames. Studies by Serbia’s Institute for European Affairs showing that Serbs still see Croatia as their biggest enemy—even ahead of the United States and Albania—do not bode well for inter-state reconciliation.
Paradoxically, Serbia has become dependent on Croatia’s goodwill and support since it embarked on the long and winding road to EU accession, as any member state can block enlargement. There will be numerous sticking points along this route, as Croatia itself discovered when its disputes with Slovenia threatened to obstruct EU entry. In Belgrade’s case, Zagreb continues to demand that Belgrade change its law on jurisdiction over war crimes in line with Chapter 23 of the Acquis Communautaire. In addition, Serbia will be expected to cooperate with Croatian courts and agencies investigating missing persons from the 1990s war.
Croatia and Serbia have a long list of disagreements in which every niggling dispute can take on more menacing dimensions. These include property disputes concerning nationalized Croatian firms in Serbia and the personal possessions of Serbs who were expelled or who fled Croatia in August 1995—not to mention border disputes along the Danube where the river has changed its course during the last 25 years.
But the question of minority rights hovers above all else. Both countries claim their kindred are subject to discrimination in such areas as employment and housing and do not benefit from the full array of collective rights. Undoubtedly, as Serbia seeks to move closer to the EU, its treatment of various ethnic and religious minorities will come under increasing scrutiny.
While some politicians in both states revive historical myths, genuine reconciliation is pushed aside. If self-interest actually prevailed, then both Belgrade and Zagreb would leave history to historians while focusing on contemporary legal, economic and social impediments that prevent Serb minority integration in Croatia and Croat minority integration in Serbia.
Both sides must also focus on developing economic cooperation through joint projects such as the EU’s Danube strategy, or various initiatives that can alleviate common problems in energy supply. Both need to look at how Germany and Poland have pursued reconciliation over the past two decades. The millennium-long history of war between Poles and Germans and the Nazi genocide of World War II has not prevented the two countries from reconciling and forging enormously beneficial economic ties. The past cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the future.