Croatia and Serbia – Open Issues

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An overview of some of the open issues between Croatia and Serbia.

Relations between Croatia and Serbia are of great importance not just for the two countries, but for the whole of Southeast Europe. While Slovenia and Croatia could have occasionally been called friends, that is impossible to say for Serbia and Croatia, at least since the early 1990s. What follows is a short overview of the history of their relations and current open issues.

Of course, the key event for relations between Croatia and Serbia is the war (1991-1995). In Croatia, it is called the Homeland War, while Serbia claims that it was an uprising of Serbs who lived in Croatia and who felt threatened by the new Croatian post-communist authorities which came to power in 1990. While all the various reasons for the war are too complex and numerous to be examined here, there is no doubt that the key was the rise of nationalism in both countries, primarily in Serbia which under then President Slobodan Milošević wanted to expand its borders to incorporate parts of other Yugoslav republics (in particular Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina).

At the height of the war, Serb forces, helped by the Yugoslav National Army, controlled about a third of Croatia’s territory. However, they did not manage to break Croatian resistance and, after Croatia was internationally recognized as an independent state in January 1992, there was little doubt how the war would end. The hostilities came to an end in 1995, when Croatia launched two major military operations (“Flash” in May and “Storm” in August) and liberated most of the occupied territories. The only remaining part of Croatia under Serb control (the Danube region) was peacefully reincorporated into Croatia in 1998.

This is the context in which it is necessary to analyze relations between Croatia and Serbia, since virtually all open issues are connected with the war and its consequences. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1996 (Serbia was at the time part of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which consisted of Serbia and Montenegro), but for the next few years the relations remained almost non-existent. That changed in 2000, when new governments came to power in both countries. The first steps in mutual cooperation taken done in the field of the economy and trade, which is by far the best developed field of cooperation even today.

However, political relations remained lukewarm at best. Successive presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and other politicians in both countries would occasionally invest some effort into improving relations, but any progress would soon be at least partially erased by an incident, public pressure, election campaign or some unforeseen event. That is the reason why the list of open issues has only grown longer in the last 20 years. Here are some of the major ones.

War Crimes
Of course, everybody agrees in principle that all war crimes must be punished and war criminals held responsible. However, to agree who is a war criminal and who should conduct trials is something completely different. For a while, the war crimes issue was under the purview of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague. But, its results were not particularly impressive and it is currently winding down its operations anyway.

So, the question is who should try alleged war criminals and who should be considered to be a war criminal? While both countries have tried some of their own people for war crimes, unsurprisingly the majority of their efforts are focused on prosecution of people “from the other side”. It is hard to imagine that even a fraction of all war crimes committed during the war could ever be investigated, let alone successfully tried, and with each passing year the chances for war crimes to be punished are diminishing, even in cases where the fact that the major war crimes were committed is not in doubt (for example, in Vukovar).

Another aspect of this problem is Serbia’s law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes, which allows it to conduct trials for war crimes committed in other parts of former Yugoslavia. It has used the law to arrest several Croatian war veterans for alleged crimes. Croatia has protested strongly against such actions and has threatened that it would not allow Serbia to continue with accession negotiations with the European Union unless the law is changed. However, so far it had to relent under international pressure and allow Serbia to open several chapters in the negotiations.

While at the moment the issue is not in the focus of attention, there is no doubt that any potential arrest of a Croatian war veteran by Serbia would again bring this issue to the forefront.

Operation Storm
After Croatia in 1995 launched Operation Storm and liberated a major part of occupied territories, hundreds of thousands of local Serbs who lived in the Krajina region at the time left and went to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most of them have not returned; many have already died while other have settled elsewhere.

Serbia claims that Croatia forced the Serbs to leave, calling it a genocide and ethnic cleansing, and demanding that the Croatian military and political leadership at the time should be held responsible. On the other hand, Croatia claims that it had every right to liberate its own territory and that Serbs left in an effort organized by their local authorities, prior to the arrival of Croatian military and police.

Every year, Croatia marks 5 August as Victory Day. It is the day in 1995 when Croatian forces entered Knin, a town which was the capital of the Serb breakaway “republic”. The festivities in Knin are one of the main events in the Croatian political calendar, with highest state officials and representatives of virtually all political parties attending. On the other hand, Serbia marks this anniversary with commemorations for victims and for Serbs who were caught in what it describes as “ethnic cleansing”.

Connected with this issue is also the question of property of Serbs who left for Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some of their houses were burnt during and after the Storm, and some were settled by Croat refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The question of ownership and compensation in such cases is still open and unlikely to be solved anytime soon.

Missing persons
One other consequence of war are missing persons, people who surely died during the war, but whose remains have not yet been found. There are about 1,600 such persons on both sides of the conflict. Many of them were victims of mass killings and are buried in still undiscovered mass graves. Although many of the mass graves have been found and remains identified (for example, at Ovčara near Vukovar), there are still many cases in which persons responsible for the crimes are withholding information about the location of the graves. The families of the missing persons are demanding from the governments to invest more effort in locating the graves, but as the years pass by, discoveries are becoming less and less frequent.

Genocide Lawsuits
Croatia filed a genocide lawsuit against Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which then consisted of Serbia and Montenegro) in 1999. With the transformation of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia into Serbia and Montenegro and the dissolution of that country in 2006, Serbia was considered its legal successor. On the other hand, Serbia filed a countersuit charging Croatia with genocide in 2010. Both lawsuits had a financial aspect, seeking compensation of damages. In February 2015, the International Court of Justice ruled that neither Serbia nor Croatia had proved sufficient evidence that either side committed genocide, thereby dismissing both cases.

While the genocide lawsuits have now been largely forgotten, at the time they were considered to be a major political issue, which greatly influenced the relations between the two countries. Although the lawsuits have been rejected, arguments about who and when committed genocide against whom continue to this day and will surely continue in the future as well.

Property issues
During the 45 years of Yugoslavia, it was usual for federal republics to invest their funds in projects in other parts of the country. Therefore, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, one of the key issues was what to do with property which remained on the territories of other republics, as well as what to do with the joint federal property. All the republics took part in lengthy negotiations, trying to get as many of the valuable properties as possible. However, the agreement which was eventually signed has still not been fully implemented, so many open questions remain. For example, Croatia is seeking the return of petrol stations which were owned by Croatian companies but were located in Serbia, as well as the funds it invested in electrical power plants in Serbia. On the other hand, Serbia wants to discuss its own investments in the oil pipeline which is located in Croatia, as well as numerous hotel resorts which Serbian companies had on the Croatian coast. There are many other similar examples.

National minorities
Despite wartime migrations, there are still substantial communities of Serbs living in Croatia and Croats living in Serbia. According to the latest census, there are about 180,000 Serbs living in Croatia, which is 4.4 percent of the total population. Before the war, there were almost 600,000 Serbs (12.2 percent) in Croatia. On the other hand, there are 58,000 Croats living in Serbia (0.8 percent). In 1991, in Serbia there were 97,000 Croats (1.2 percent).

The status and rights of their respective national minorities represent another important issue for both countries. For example, Croatia claims that Serbia is not fulfilling its obligations with respect to the right to education in Croatian language, while Serbia often protests about the right of Serbs in Croatia to have signs written in Cyrillic script on public buildings in areas in which they represent a significant proportion of the population (particularly in Vukovar). There are also many other aspects of this problem, with regards to cultural, financial, political and other rights. Still, the situation now is certainly much better on both sides than it was during the war, and hopefully it will continue to improve.

The issue of border between the two countries does not have anything directly to do with the war. It is more a consequence of the river Danube, which represents part of the border, changing its course with time, which leaves an open question of whether the border moves with it or not. Croatia claims that the border should follow an old course of the river, while Serbia wants the border to follow the middle of the current course.

According to the Croatian proposal, both countries would have significant parts of territory on the “wrong” side of the river. While a perhaps logical solution would be for the two countries to exchange these pieces of land, the problem is that Croatia has about 10,000 hectares of land on the Serbian side of the Danube, while Serbia has just 1,000 hectares on the Croatian side.

Any compromise about borders is always difficult, but when it comes to the border with Serbia, it is absolutely impossible. Since the border area was occupied during the Homeland War and was only returned to Croatian jurisdiction after seven years, in 1998, the pressure from the public and the media would be hard to resist.

Currently, Croatia controls its side of the border, and Serbia its. There is allegedly a joint commission to solve this question, but it is not known whether it has ever met and it is certain that there has been no significant progress. Occasionally, politicians say they might ask an international tribunal to arbitrate, but it is more likely that the current situation with the border will not change anytime soon.

EU negotiations
Serbia is currently conducting accession negotiations with the European Union. Croatia is already a member, and it is occasionally using its veto right to blackmail Serbia into submission on certain issues. However, since influential European countries, particularly Germany, want to bring Serbia closer to the EU and farther away from Russia, Croatia always finds itself under pressure to abandon its attempts and allow the negotiations to proceed.

There have been several such situations so far, and Croatia would always have to embarrassingly relent without achieving anything of significance. And, with the future of the European Union seemingly in doubt at the moment, the question is whether it will ever be able to use its position to gain any advantage in its jostling with Serbia.

Arms race
More than twenty years after the war ended, lately there are worrying signs. Both countries’ leaderships have started talking about the need to increase spending on the military. While Serbia is probably more focused on the issue of Kosovo, its breakaway former province which declared independence, the potential for a possible conflict in the future does exist, although chances for anything more serious fortunately seem distant, at least for now.

Serbia has intensified its military cooperation with Russia and expects to receive new fighter jets and other weaponry soon, while Croatia is considering possible acquisition of fighter jets from one of its NATO partners. Also, there is increasing talk in the two countries about the possible return of military conscription and mandatory military training. Although a full-scale war seems unlikely, given that Croatia is part of NATO and both countries have dilapidated armies at the moment, given the unstable global context, not even the worst scenario can be fully excluded.

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina is squeezed between Croatia and Serbia, and any trouble in their relations always has grave consequences for it as well, particularly since both Croats and Serbs are constituent peoples of Bosnia (together with Bosniaks). The effects of the 1990s war in Bosnia can still be felt, and the country is deeply dysfunctional. It is divided into two entities, one dominated by Serbs and another which is shared by Bosniaks and Croats (with Bosniaks being dominant, although Croats are supposed to be equal in rights).

The story about Bosnia could itself merit a whole article (or rather a book), but what has to be said is that it is impossible to know what will happen even in the near future, given the possibility that the Serb part of the country might try to secede and that great powers might decide to turn their focus to the region. The First World War started in Sarajevo, so nothing is impossible.

While certain problems exist with all the neighbours, Serbia is number one for Croatia when it comes to the significance of open issues. Since it is unlikely they will be resolved anytime soon, the best option seems to be to hope they will not get any worse.


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