With relations between Belgrade and Zagreb already at a new low, Serbia last week arrested a wartime officer in a rebel Serb army in Croatia on espionage charges. On September 5, 57-year-old Cedo Colovic reportedly accepted a plea bargain of a three-year prison term in exchange for his confession to spying for Croatia.
The daily Informer, which has close links to the government in Belgrade, described the suspected Croatian spy in the following terms:
"Cedo Colovic (57), retired major of the Army of the (self-proclaimed) Republic of Serb Krajina, has for years been selling confidential army and intelligence information to Croatia. Colovic, a Serb from Drnis (in Croatia), was arrested on Friday, September 2, in an attempt to flee to Croatia. Based on information supplied by him, Croatia has issued indictments for nine Serbs accused of ‘war crimes'(!)”
Zagreb, meanwhile, says it received no official confirmation of the arrest of Colovic, who is a dual Serbian and Croatian citizen.
Croatia is in the midst of an election campaign that culminates in voting on September 11.
So Social Democratic Party leader and former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic took the time to pour cold water on this bizarre affair. He quipped that if there was any secret worth stealing in Serbia, it might be the recipe for the famous spiced Balkan burger known as pljeskavica.
Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovac said on September 4 that despite attempts to establish a line of communication with the Serbian side, Zagreb has yet to receive any official notice of the arrest of the alleged spy, adding that he is very much in the dark about the case.
"As much as I try to engage my brain, I cannot fathom what this is all about. This is all very amateurish. It's clearly all for show. It's not working, and it doesn't lead anywhere,” Kovac told N1.
The Croatian portal net.hr has suggested that Covic might be a double agent, working for both the Serbian and the Croatian sides, but also asserted that he was not employed by either country's security agencies.
The same source offered a reminder that there is an ongoing leadership struggle within the Serbian Information Agency (BIA), making it plausible that someone is hoping to boost their chances of emerging on top by arresting a "Croatian spy" at a particularly sensitive time in Serbian-Croatian relations.
However, Croatian analysts agree that relations between the two countries are currently in such a poor state that this "spying” affair is unlikely to make things worse.
Not long before the incident, EU member Croatia did its best to block Serbia's accession talks. Zagreb insists that Serbia must renounce its role as the "regional policeman” and has called for curbs on Serbia's practice of issuing arrest warrants at its own discretion for those suspected of war crimes on any of the territories of the former Yugoslavia.
In any case, according to the Veljko Dzakula, president of the (Croatian) Serb Democratic Forum, if Colovic was indeed guilty of passing secret information on war crimes, then he was right to do so.
"If he was exposing those who committed war crimes, then I think he was performing a public service, as we are all obliged to do what we can to ensure that those guilty of war crimes are brought to justice. I don't consider this espionage. There should be nothing to hide,” Dzakula told RFE/RL.