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Serbia and Croatia: Mutual allegations of genocide February 17, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Human rights.
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Serbia and Croatia, two Balkan countries whose relations many look at as a key to regional peace and stability, entered 2010 with some more or less good news, but have also shown a lack of ability to get rid of their joint burden from the recent past.

Croatia elected a new president, professor of law Ivo Josipovic, on Jan. 10. He was welcomed across the whole region, including Serbia. Serbian President Boris Tadic, however, has refused to attend his inauguration on Feb. 18 because Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu will be present. He said his participation in an event also attended by Sejdiu would mean an indirect recognition of Kosovo’s independence. “I am ready to go there under the condition that the issue of Serbia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is not brought into question,” President Tadic added. That sovereignty and integrity, as was seen from Belgrade, has been brought in question by outgoing Croatian President Stjepan Mesic, who chose to visit Kosovo, of all places, in one of his last visits as a president. This trip came only two days before his successor was elected. He was received in Prishtinë as a great friend of Kosovo who strongly backed its independence, provoking an equivalent amount of resentment in Belgrade.Croatia was also one of the countries that backed Kosovo at hearings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), held last December on the question of whether Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008 was legal under international law. It is interesting that Belgrade’s reaction to the recognition and establishment of diplomatic relations with Kosovo by the US and European Union member states was much more indulgent than when its neighbors Croatia, Montenegro and Macedonia did the same. This is to a large extent due to the necessity to recognize Kosovo’s independence being a condition in Serbia’s EU accession process. Such a double approach was clearly seen last week when Montenegro established diplomatic relations with Kosovo despite a request from Belgrade to refrain from doing so until the ICJ rules on the validity of Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic immediately reacted, recalling the Serbian ambassador from the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, and said that Serbia has said more than once that the Montenegrin establishment of diplomatic relations with the “illegal secessionist rule in Prishtinë” would not pass without consequences.

Mesic adds fuel to fire

Before leaving office, Croatian President Mesic added new fuel to the fire of Serbian sentiments he already inflamed by his visit to Kosovo. In an informal meeting with journalists, he said: “If Milorad Dodik [the leader of the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina] scheduled a referendum for the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina and if I were the president … I would send the army.” Apart from the expected harsh reaction by Dodik and other Bosnian Serb politicians, Serbian President Tadic went further. During a recent debate on Kosovo, he used the UN Security Council’s rostrum to denounce Mesic’s statement, accusing him of saber rattling and endangering regional stability. An official response by Croatia said Mesic’s statements should be taken as a “radically formulated warning that the world should not close its eyes to the policies of RS Prime Minister Dodik, and the possible consequences of these policies, as it closed its eyes for too long to the policies of [former Serbian President] Slobodan Milosevic, which led to the collapse of Yugoslavia and bloody wars.”

The issues of Kosovo and Bosnia will stay opened, considerably affecting overall bilateral relations between Serbia and Croatia. There is, however, another issue that is more “open” and serious and that does harm these relations as well but could be, with the goodwill of both sides, closed sooner than the two previous ones. This issue is the mutual accusations at the ICJ of war atrocities, even genocide, during the Serbian occupation of eastern parts of Croatia after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Mutual accusations of genocide

The Hague’s ICJ on Jan. 4 received Serbia’s charges against Croatia of genocide committed against Croatian Serbs during the 1991-1995 war. The lawsuit relates mostly to the last period of the war in Croatia, when the Croatian army launched the campaign “Storm,” leading to atrocities against the civilian population and making refugees out of 200,000 Serbs from Croatia, who fled to Bosnia and Serbia. The suit, in five volumes, also includes crimes committed against Serbs by the pro-Nazi Croatian state during World War II.

Belgrade’s lawsuit was a reaction to a similar one Croatia filed 10 years ago against Serbia, which was at the time the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, claiming that Serb aggression against Croatia in 1991 and the occupation of a third of its territory from then until 1995 amounted to genocide. The ICJ granted Croatia not earlier than 2008 the right to sue Serbia by deciding that the ICJ has the authority to rule on the case. Croatia requested that the ICJ order Serbia to punish all perpetrators of war crimes, to pay war reparations, to participate in a search for Croatians who went missing during the conflict and to return looted cultural artifacts.

In the meantime, in a lawsuit by Bosnia and Herzegovina against Serbia in 2007, the ICJ cleared Belgrade of committing genocide itself, but confirmed it had not done enough to stop atrocities committed by Bosnian Serbs.

Many were surprised by this new Serbian-Croatian eruption of mutual international allegations of genocide. Dismissing claims from the Serbian countersuit, Croatian politicians said their country is prepared to prove “that there was in fact Serbian aggression on Croatia,” as stressed by Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor. “Croatia was drawn into a war it did not want,” she said. President Mesic said “not a single Croatian soldier had crossed the border into Serbia or killed somebody on Serbian soil.”

However, Zarko Puhovski, a Croatian professor of political philosophy, said that “those are political suits, and there is no doubt among experts that neither side has any chance of winning.” Zarko Markovic, a researcher with the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, also considers “that both suits have no chance of success, which became clear after the ICJ, of all the atrocities that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s, qualified only the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as genocide.”

Behind Belgrade’s decision was probably the fact that a majority of Serbia’s population thinks expelling Serbs from Croatia should be punished. There is also the popular belief that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague has mostly been trying Serbs. “It appears that both sides feel,” Markovic concludes, addressing both Serbia and Croatia, “that they do not need this … but they do not know how to get out of this situation without losing electoral support.”

It is true that the approach of putting aside mutual accusations of war crimes is prevailing among the leading politicians in both countries. They feel it will help them make further progress on their way toward the EU and contribute to regional stability and a good neighborhood. There are even indications that both sides would be happier if their suit and countersuit at the ICJ did not exist. “We want to believe that it is possible for Serbian and Croatian institutions to sit at the table in the future and try to establish, through a persistent and laborious process, a possible out of court solution that would satisfy the principle of justice and fairness, but also take care of the victims,” Serbian President Tadic said. In spite of being a member of the team that prepared the Croatian lawsuit against Serbia in 1999, president-elect Josipovic did not exclude even its withdrawal, emphasizing it was in Croatia’s strategic interest to have good relations with Serbia. Croatian Prime Minister Kosor said the Serbian suit against her country would not affect bilateral relations. “This is part of the past; we share a common future, and we would like to live as good neighbors,” she said.

In search of a common future

Thus, the decade-old Croatian lawsuit alleging genocide and a similar countersuit by Serbia could eventually be withdrawn for the benefit of better bilateral and regional relations. If they do do it, it will be more because of the conviction that the ICJ would hardly agree on genocide, considering how it failed to see as genocide the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It was nice hearing the Croatian prime minister talk about leaving aside the past and expressing good wishes for a common future. It would be really good for all Balkan peoples to finally join the European peace, which has lasted for almost 65 years. However, the burden of conflicts that lasted until the end of the 1990s is still too heavy to be so easily left to history. Otherwise, why should Serbia extend its lawsuit to crimes committed during World War II? Even if it is hard for the past to be forgotten and past crimes to be forgiven in the Balkans, it might be the best solution for Serbia and Croatia to continue their pro-European path as important and sovereign regional countries. And for their citizens, Serbs and Croats, it would be the best to forget what happened during the last century when they were part of a country called Yugoslavia, participating in its creation as well as in its break up.

Regarding me as a Bosnian, let me repeat an old conclusion, grounded upon the tragic memory my people and country keep from the last century: It would have been better if Serbs and Croats had never lived in one state.

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