By Igor Jovanovic
After six months of cool relations between Croatia and Serbia, analysts said Croatia Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic’s visit to Belgrade on January 16th was a first step toward improved dialogue and regional stability.
Among the rhetorical barbs exchanged since Serbia President Tomislav Nikolic took office last year, Zagreb officials reproached Begrade for statements about Serbs in Croatia and the 1990s wars. Serbian officials blamed Zagreb for failing to punish war crimes against Serbs and for not allowing Serbian companies to operate in Croatia.
Former Serbian ambassador to Germany Ognjen Pribicevic told SETimes that Milanovic’s visit was important, but cautioned that not much should be expected from it.
“It will certainly take a few decades to fully normalize those relations, and for a while longer they will hinge on current political events,” Pribicevic said.
Predrag Simic, a political science professor at the University of Belgrade, said relations between Serbia and Croatia also impact Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), because both states are guarantors of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia in 1995. Simic told SETimes that the six-month freeze in relations between Serbia and Croatia was not acceptable to the EU, which is believed to have mediated in scheduling last week’s meeting.
Zarko Puhovski of the Zagreb Faculty of Philosophy told the Belgrade media that the visit came at a time when Croatia was much more important to Serbia than vice versa.
“For the first time in history, Serbia is not important to Croatia, while Croatia is important to Serbia because of EU accession,” Puhovski said. “Serbia’s path to the EU will lead via Zagreb, just as Croatia’s path had led via Slovenia.”
The meeting between Milanovic and Serbian counterpart Ivica Dacic started with the acknowledgment that mutual relations are important for the region and that time has been lost in the last six months.
“There is nothing new, except that we have lost half a year. Why, that doesn’t matter now, but we have lost half a year,” Milanovic told a joint press conference after the meeting with Dacic.
The Serbian prime minister acknowledged that diplomacy is required.
“We know that there are many issues we do not agree on, but we’re also aware that we have to co-operate nonetheless,” said Dacic.
The discussion focused on open issues from Serbia and Croatia’s past, economic cooperation and European integration. The prime ministers reached the most agreement in the matter of EU integration. Milanovic said Croatia, which is set to join the EU this year, wants to be a bridge between Serbia and Brussels.
“Croatia supports Serbia on the path to the EU, which is not just a phrase but something meaningful, because that is in our interest,” Milanovic said.
Progress also was made on economic issues, and Milanovic said all obstacles to the operation of Serbian companies in his state would be removed.
“If there are any obstacles to the investing and business of Serbian companies in Croatia, we are here to resolve it, because we are about to enter the EU, which is a single market ruled by a market game with fair rules,” said Milanovic.
But the 45-minute meeting did not resolve the matter of mutual genocide lawsuits before the Hague’s International Court of Justice. Dacic said discussions did not mention dropping the lawsuits.
“We did not talk about how to solve that problem, but I think it’s not good to wait until 2014, when the proceedings will start,” in The Hague, Dacic said. Statements from the presidents of the two nations indicate that improving relations will require more work.
Nikolic said he should have met with his Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic first, because he represents the state at home and abroad.
“If Croatia filed a genocide lawsuit against Serbia, then how come the Croatian prime minister is coming on a friendly visit to Serbia? Someone is not being honest there,” Nikolic added.
Prior to Milanovic’s visit, Josipovic said he would not go to Belgrade until Nikolic changed his rhetoric.