The Prime Minister of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, suddenly left the scheduled meetings in Brussels on Monday, at the beginning of the Second Sunday of Advent. Immediately afterwards, he said he would not allow his country to be threatened and humiliated. The reason for his resistance was completely unexpected. On Monday, 12/12/2016, a few hours before the start of a new round of EU accession negotiations with Belgrade, Croatia blocked the negotiation chapter no. 26, on education and culture.
Of course, this could also mean that the negotiation blockade and prime minister’s protest departure was just a show aimed at domestic voters. Serbia is facing important elections for a new head of state, and new Croatian government must prove to extreme part of the ruling party its perseverance and consistency. This is the only way I can understand the apology of the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, when she mistakenly donated a small chocolate made in Serbia to children in Dubrovnik. Or the meeting of the committee of the Croatian Parliament and long debate on whether they can require a removal of recently placed memorial plate in Jasenovac, which has the Ustasha salute in its coat of arms. Those days, in Belgrade, Vučić greeted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who most likely again brought the request for setting up of Russian military base in Niš. At the same time, he has to make the decision of who will be the candidate of his party in the spring presidential elections, whether the current president Tomislav Nikolić, who does not stand very well in the surveys, or Vučić himself. Which would also probably mean re-scheduling of early parliamentary elections.
However, only a few hours later, it turned out that it was not just about proving the power and consistency of the two policies. The stakes were simply too high. Vučić informed both key persons who have binding opinions on relations in the region, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Vice President Joe Biden, on this new Balkan conflict. Croatian President Grabar-Kitarović only replied that the required criteria for opening of the chapter number 26 are not a political problem and that the neighbouring country can easily fulfil them.
There is almost no information about what really happened on Monday afternoon in Brussels. This is why we must open the available information and try to determine the content and reasons of the new, cold, Croatian Serbian conflict. And the closest point is June 20, 2016. That Monday evening, Prime Minister Vučić and President Grabar- Kitarović signed the Declaration on Mutual Relations between the two countries in the City Hall in Subotica. It was ceremonial and optimistic. Croatian president spoke about almost historical significance of the signatures with which solving of the issues that burden the relations between the two countries would begin. Later, she publicly added that she was the co-creator of Croatian foreign policy and that, therefore, she had all the necessary power to do whatever it takes that the signed declaration does not remain a dead letter. And, what is important today, she said, that Croatia does not intend to block Serbia in EU accession negotiations, because Serbia and its full membership in the EU is a precondition for permanent peace, stability, security and development in the region. And that all problems were solvable through mutual dialogues.
What important thing happened in less than six months, making Croatia nevertheless block the negotiations in a relatively less demanding chapter?
Occasional worsening of relations between the neighbouring countries is being repeated. Although, almost every time, the cause of the dispute was obvious in its political content. Official Belgrade’s response to Croatian recognizing of Kosovo’s sovereignty and independence was entirely predictable. Just like the closure of state borders at the peak of the refugee wave, and later mutual economic sanctions. The obviousness of the existing disputes between Serbia and Croatia was the politically rational moment that also made them solvable.
Croatia recognized Kosovo in mid-March 2008. This was followed by a year of cold relations with Serbia. Until mid-March 2009, when the Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader paid an official visit to Belgrade. I have come to break together the old rule by which the worse the neighbour is doing, the better I am, he said to his host, the then President of Serbia, Boris Tadić. Therefore, my support and, therefore, Croatian support to Serbia is not demagogic, there are so many issues in which we can help each other and thereby strengthen the position of both sides. That was already a time when Sanader minimized and weakened the relations with Slovenia, as a relatively unimportant state, however, a member of the EU and NATO defence alliance, and substantially burdensome because of its long-term requests for the definition of the state border and its contact with the open sea. Former Croatian president was convinced that the regulation and establishment of strong relations with Serbia would be the mechanism and guarantee of stability in the whole region, which would leave Slovenia’s requests to a flow of repetitive and never completed negotiations on borders. This is why he explained, during his March visit to Belgrade, that it was more than a routine state visit. It is, Sanader said, a message to Europe on the importance of good Croatian-Serbian relations for the development of the entire region. And the message that we know our common past, but also that we know that we must not forget the future. Of course, Sanader knew back then that precisely such visits and messages to Brussels and Washington were the most reliable means for cooling of the existing thesis that stability and peace in the region were possible only with Croatia and Serbia simultaneously becoming full EU members. Therefore, he repeated a sort of Croatian saying which Croatian politicians, when necessary, are repeating even nowadays as well, that Croatia would not behave like Slovenia and that it would, therefore, as a future member of the EU, support Serbia during the entire process. We should write something more about this such a favourite phrase in Zagreb, about the behaviour of Slovenia during the Croatian accession negotiations, in fact, we should show exactly the opposite behaviour of Slovenia during negotiations on an agreement on arbitration, although this would lead us far away from today’s topic.
On 19 January 2010, a new intensification of relations between Zagreb and Belgrade followed. Croatian President, Stipe Mesić, who was at the end of his term as president, reminded publicly, which was his method, that the Republic of Croatia, with its cosigning of the Dayton Agreement, had committed to ensuring of the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reason for the statement was the then announcement of a referendum on the independence of Republika Srpska. And here lies the beginning of Mesić’s explanation that gave wings to rage. In this case, the case of voting of some sort of referendum, Croatia would have to intervene militarily in the Bosnian Posavina and cut the territorial corridor between Banja Luka and Serbia, he said. Serbian President Tadić immediately informed the Secretary General of the UN on the content of the statement. Mesić’s statement was more a matter of its internal political use. In the late fifties, in Belgrade General Staff of the former Yugoslav People’s Army, in its prestigious first staff, relatively young and ambitious colonels, Franjo Tuđman, Veljko Kadijević and Dušan Bilandžić shared their offices. At the beginning of the Yugoslav wars of the nineties, the first one became Croatian president, the second one defence minister and military commander, and the third one academician with the occasional political tasks. One of them lead a special group of Croatian negotiators who operationalized the secret agreements between Tuđman and Milošević, and divided between the two countries the third one, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The starting point of the division was simple, line Banja Luka-Mostar, where all the territory west of the Neretva belongs to Croatia and east from the river to Serbia. The negotiations were quickly completed. To be specific, the division was impracticable. In June 2012, the negotiator Bilandžić claimed, in an interview with the Croatian weekly Nacional, that Milošević and Tuđman agreed on the fate of Posavina as well, where, except in Banja Luka, the majority population was Croatian and Muslim. And he ended with the terrible thesis that the war conflicts between Serbian and Croatian armed units in Bosnian Posavina were intended only for the public, that Tuđman explained to him that it was still necessary to act, that the territory was lost in the war and that it was not given up without a battle.
Nevertheless, Tadić and Croatian president-elect Dr. Ivo Josipović met almost unexpectedly again in March 2010. On the Croatian warship Cista Velika, which was travelling from the island of Krk to Opatija slowly, over two hours, they were analyzing controversial issues between the two countries and defining these issues. And those are the issues of missing and killed, determining of the state borders, minorities, the right of return of displaced persons, archival material and return of cultural and artistic inheritance. Immediately afterwards, the two governments formed expert and negotiating bodies for negotiations on specific subjects. But it was all suspended relatively quickly. Such bodies, to be specific, still cannot bring the results without the full support of the leadership of the state. Until those questions and their amicable solutions become a key political commitment of both Croatian and Serbian governments, there will not be any changes.
High political meetings and signing of declarations, such was the one in Subotica, this June, are important, but also important is the decision on the immediate support of the negotiating groups seeking a solution to the consequences of recent wars, also, as Sanader said, for good future of the entire region.