The incoming Zagreb government is promising to improve relations with Serbia, but questions remain about whether the situation will improve Croatia’s Serb minority.
By Sven Milekic and Ivana Nikolic
The incoming Croatian government has vowed to address the country’s troubled relations with neighbour Serbia, which deteriorated last year when Zagreb enthusiastically celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Operation Storm victory over rebel Serbs, to Belgrade’s disgust.
Tomislav Karamarko, president of the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, the leading party in the Patriotic Coalition which is expected to form the new government, said on Monday that “Croatia must have good relations with Serbia”.
The issue of the celebration of Operation Storm – which caused some 200,000 Serbs to flee Croatia – “must be resolved”, Karamarko insisted.
Karamarko said that better relations between the two countries were likely because outgoing Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic was too confrontational.
“The policy of confrontation with everyone, being in a quarrel with everyone… isn’t good within the EU and between neighbouring countries. What was done before was not good and cooperation will now be much better,” Karamarko insisted.
Operation Storm, however, is not the only troubling issue between Croats and Serbs.
The outgoing government’s initiative – based on Croatian minorities legislation – to install bilingual Cyrillic-Latin signs on official buildings in the wartime flashpoint town of Vukovar, which was razed by the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries in the war in 1991, sparked a series of protests within the country.
Karamarko said that the Vukovar issue was “an open wound” which demands sensitivity.
His partner from the potential future government, the president of the MOST party, Bozo Petrov, also said on Monday that good relations with neighbouring countries are necessary and will result in the security and economic development of Croatia.
But prime minister designate Tihomir Oreskovic, in an interview for Croatian daily newspaper Jutarnji List, published last Thursday, said that “it’s still not time for Cyrillic in Vukovar”.
He blamed the “fresh wounds” from 1991 but added that with time, the Serb Cyrillic script will come to Vukovar, just as the Italian language is used in Croatia’s Istrian peninsula despite the WWII conflict.
Questions remains about how the incoming right-wing government will deal with minorities issues – specifically those of Croatia’s Serbs – once they are in power.
Veljko Dzakula, president of the Serbian Democratic Forum, told BIRN that the new government “will have more sincere and clear” relations towards the Serb minority than the outgoing government led by Milanovic.
“I think that the HDZ’s moves will be more responsible compared to when they were in opposition,” Dzakula said.
“There won’t be so much talking about national minority rights as work being done to improve them,” he added.
He also suggested that relations between Zagreb and Belgrade will be better, since both governments come from the same side of the political spectrum and because “Milanovic didn’t want to have any relations with the Serbian government”.
Dejan Jovic, a professor at the Zagreb Faculty of Political Sciences, told BIRN that the issue of the Serbian minority was ignored during the election campaign last year.
“Nevertheless, MOST did advocate a smaller number of MPs, which could affect national minorities’ representatives, while from the Patriotic Coalition, the HSLS [centre-right Croatian Social Liberal Party] in particular, there were comments that national minorities’ representatives should not make declarations about the majority in parliament,” he said.
The Serb minority in Croatia has three representatives in parliament; one of them supported the HDZ and MOST.
Jovic said however that any change to election legislation to cut the number of minority MPs would cause a major political row, but this was highly unlikely since it would need the support of two-thirds of MPs.
“We have prior experience that when the HDZ is in power, it doesn’t raise issues of this sort; it somehow pushes them into the background. When it is in the opposition, the HDZ insists on the issues of the Cyrillic script, Serbs’ rights, the position of Vukovar,” he said.
Jovic said he expected that under a HDZ-led government, there would be no public protests like the anti-Cyrillic demonstrations led by the Headquarters for the Protection of Croatian Vukovar and that Serb minorities were expecting “a less aggressive HDZ when in government”.
However, he warned, with conservative nationalist parties in power in both Croatia and Serbia, a “new war with words” could be expected in June, when the new government, if confirmed, could organise a military parade to mark the 25th anniversary of Croatia’s statehood.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has also said that relations between Zagreb and Belgrade could now improve with the election of a new Croatian government.
“Maybe the HDZ will be braver in making some moves than the [outgoing government led by Milanovic’s] SDP, because they thought someone could accuse them of not supporting national interests enough,” Dacic said.
Miodrag Linta, head of the Belgrade-based Association of Serbs from the Region, said that all the previous issues will remain despite the promises coming from the new Croatian government.
“Serbia-Croatia relations cannot be relations of mutual respect and trust until there are issues such as the question about the celebration of Operation Storm. For us it was a criminal act, while for the Croats it was an act of liberation,” Linta told BIRN.
He also cited the issues of the remaining missing persons from the 1990s war and the prosecution of war crimes.
“Bearing all this in mind, I don’t expect the substantial improvement of relations,” he said.
Aleksandar Popov, director of the Novi Sad-based Centre for Regionalism think tank, told BIRN that it remains to be seen in the coming months how relations between Serbia and Croatia will develop now under the new administration in Zagreb.
“If this was a bit more moderate version of the HDZ, I would say relations with Serbia could improve,” Popov said.
However he raised concerns that HDZ party leader Karamarko could be a hostage of his own right-wing affiliations in terms of relations with Serbia and with Serbs within Croatia.