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Balkan Report: June 4, 2008

Analysis: Serbia And Croatia's Blast From The Past

By RFE/RL analyst Patrick Moore

Vuk Jeremic

Serbia's Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who is an ally of pro-EU President Boris Tadic, came in for sharp criticism in Croatia last week after he charged that country with deliberately trying to "ethnically cleanse" 250,000 Serbs in Operation Storm in August 1995.

Croatian politicians and commentators accused him of playing to a Serbian domestic audience for political reasons, glossing over Serbia's own wartime record, and needlessly bringing up a sensitive historical issue at a Zagreb economic conference.

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 Jadrankovic, 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 Jadrankovic. 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 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 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.

Bosnia-Herzegovina: Selling Information About Mass Graves

Forensic experts working at a mass grave in Budak, near Srebrenica

News reports about trafficking in information regarding the location of human remains from the 1992-95 conflict recently caused a stir in Bosnia-Herzegovina. RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on May 27, however, that the problem of exploiting the grief of victims' loved ones for profit is nothing new there.

Already from the first days and weeks of the conflict in 1992, individuals sought to obtain money by providing information about the locations of prisoners and detainees. Some people offered to arrange prisoner exchanges or releases in exchange for payment. The practice continued into the postwar era, when individuals from all three ethnic groups offered information about mass graves and other burial sites for profit. About 12,000 victims of the conflict remain unaccounted for.

Amor Masovic, who formerly headed the Commission on Missing Persons of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation and remains a director of that institution, says that the individuals seeking to sell information also include people of the same nationality as those buried on the site in question. Some would-be sellers got their information second- or third-hand, but many have such detailed knowledge of the burial site that Masovic believes it is certain that they themselves must have been involved in the atrocity.

He noted that the sellers' demands vary greatly. Some seek only a few euros, while one man wanted 1 million euros ($1.55 million). Other requests involve issues other than money, such as help in getting a passport, visa, or political asylum abroad. One seller wanted roofing material for the house of a refugee who returned home.

Masovic pointed out that the commission does not have any budget or authority to make such payments or arrangements, although some of his staff have paid small sums out of their own per diem allowances to obtain information. Milan Bogdanic, who heads a similar commission in the Republika Srpska, noted that the courts have money to pay for information but added that sellers are reluctant to approach them for fear of eventually being prosecuted.

Bogdanic argued that few people in possession of information about mass graves or the remains of individuals are willing to tell what they know out of human decency, but want some form of compensation instead. The demands, he added, vary greatly.

Accordingly, Bogdanic believes it is necessary to establish regulations to set boundaries for payments for such information and involve government institutions in the process. He noted, however, that victims' families tend to reject that idea, presumably because they fear that regulating the sale of information would deter individuals from coming forward and telling what they know.

Seida Karabasic, who heads a group called Izvor (Source) dealing with missing persons from the Prijedor area, said that Izvor does not involve itself directly in the information trade. She nonetheless added that many families are willing to pay several hundred euros just to learn where their loved ones are buried and hence obtain closure.

Karabasic noted that the information offered usually proves accurate. The sellers are clearly from the area and can identify the victims by first and last names.

Prijedor was the site of the Keraterm, Omarska, and Trnopolje concentration camps. In the summer of 1992, footage from Omarska drew international attention to the ethnic-cleansing campaign of Bosnian Serb forces.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service correspondent Zana Kovacevic. Compiled by RFE/RL Regional Analyst Patrick Moore