Jeremic made the remarks on May 28 at a meeting of the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative, a regional body founded in 2000 to deal with economic development, infrastructure projects, science and technology, environmental protection, culture and tourism, and organized crime. Jeremic and the host, Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic, were the only ministers present. Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Italy, Montenegro, and Slovenia were all represented by officials below ministerial rank.
In his controversial remarks, Jeremic recalled the 1991-95 war between Serbian forces and Croatia. He alluded to the destruction of the Danubian town of Vukovar by Serbs in 1991 and then juxtaposed it to Operation Storm, which ended a Belgrade-backed insurgency by Croatian Serbs. Croatian critics charged that Jeremic sought to deny Serbia's responsibility as the aggressor in the conflict.
Jeremic called on his listeners to "think about Vukovar and the horrible things that happened there. Think about the ethnic cleansing of more than 250,000 Serbs during Operation Storm in 1995." He also criticized Croatia's recent decision to recognize Kosovo's independence, saying that relations between Belgrade and Zagreb "deteriorated from the moment when Croatia, unfortunately, decided to demolish the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country with a unilateral act, namely by recognizing the illegal declaration of independence of Kosovo."
In remarks unlikely intended to go down well with the western Balkans' perhaps 8 million ethnic Albanians, as well as some members of other regional ethnic groups, he added that "Serbia and Croatia have a clear responsibility to jointly lead the region to a common European future."
Croatian reaction to Jeremic's remarks on Operation Storm and the war was swift in coming, beginning with Jandrokovic. Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" noted on May 29 that "Croatian politicians from all parties rejected Jeremic's interpretation as unacceptable." Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said that Serbs would be well advised to "face up to and reject their past and not say that Croatia carried out ethnic cleansing.... The truth is plain: Serbia carried out aggression, Croatia won in that imposed war, and Croatia is the victor."
President Stjepan Mesic recalled that "tanks from Belgrade, Novi Sad, [and elsewhere in] Serbia arrived in Croatia and destroyed not only Vukovar but also other towns as well.... Our tanks did not go to Novi Sad or Belgrade."
Veteran politician and commentator Zdravko Tomac told javno.org on May 29 that Jeremic's remarks are, in fact, nothing new from the Serbian leadership. Tomac argued that Tadic and outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica "have for years" used the anniversary of Operation Storm to accuse Croatia of "the worst ethnic cleansing since World War II."
Several Croatian commentators argued that Jeremic's purpose in making the remarks was to engage in political grandstanding for the benefit of the Serbian public at a time when negotiations aimed at forming a new national government are in progress. Those critics noted that there was no practical reason or one of protocol for a foreign minister to attend a conference dealing with "cooperation in small and medium business, road links, protection of the environment, and protection from fires," as javno.org put it.
Some commentators suggested that non-Serbs might be wrong in calling Jeremic and members of his Democratic Party "pro-European," since his comments could have come from almost any Serbian nationalist politician.
The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" suggested that Jeremic's remarks might also be an attempt at influencing the hearings currently under way at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is examining Croatia's charge of genocide against Serbia. The case is linked to the 1991-95 war, which left 10,572 Croats dead and 1,419 missing. Also at issue are the destruction of towns, homes, and cultural monuments, and the looting of property. Croatia wants those Serbian citizens it says are responsible to be punished, the stolen goods returned, and reparations assessed and paid.
RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service noted on May 28 that Jeremic's remarks and the controversy surrounding them show once again that those countries involved in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s have yet to come to terms with their past or view recent history with much detachment. Accordingly, Operation Storm remains for most Croats an important part of their liberation struggle against the forces of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, while most Serbs regard that offensive as an act of brutal ethnic cleansing.
German Balkan experts often point out that it took West Germans more than two decades of development, democracy, and increasing prosperity after World War II before they were ready to begin serious, critical examination of the Nazi era and its roots, which still remain the subject of much controversy in Germany. Those Balkan experts argue that it is probably too soon to expect most people in former Yugoslavia to launch objective discussions of their own recent past in a struggling region still beset by high rates of poverty and unemployment.