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Serbia And Croatia: Sweeping The Real Issues Under The Carpet

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic (left) and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic gave the impression of performing a mildly unpleasant but unavoidable duty, doing their best to project an image of harmony and friendship.

Relations between Serbia and Croatia are at their lowest ebb in years. Belgrade is upset with Croatia for blocking its path to EU membership. Croatia would like Serbia to change its laws and renounce what it sees as Belgrade's tendency to act as the "regional policeman."

There are other issues, too. Serbia lodged an official protest with the EU over a recent exhibition at the European Parliament celebrating the life of Croatian Cardinal Alojz Stepinac, a hugely controversial figure. Stepinac was sentenced as a Nazi collaborator after World War II, yet he was in the process of being beatified by Pope John Paul II before he died. There are some indications that he may have opposed the racist and murderous policies of the wartime Nazi puppet regime in Croatia. His beatification is currently on hold.

But all this was hastily swept under the carpet on June 20, when Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic met Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. Both gave the impression of performing a mildly unpleasant but unavoidable duty, doing their best to project an image of harmony and friendship. Trying to act like responsible adults, they repeated platitudes about the importance of regional stability and peace.

Yet for both parties, the summit was a welcome respite from growing troubles at home.

Vucic was no doubt happy to be away from Belgrade, where he would have to face continued questions from journalists over the delay in forming a government. He could also temporarily ignore the pressure being put on him by Moscow to include ministers that would meet with Putin's approval. By comparison, it was much easier to spend time with Grabar-Kitarovic, exchanging views on minority rights, missing people, and fixing the border between the two neighboring states, than having to report to Putin or run the domestic media gauntlet.

Meanwhile, the denouement of an unprecedented political crisis was unfolding in Zagreb. An overwhelming majority of parliamentary deputies voted for a motion of no confidence in the government on June 15, leading to the dissolution of the Croatian parliament and paving the way to fresh elections. Apart from Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic, the biggest casualty of the crisis has been Tomislav Karamarko, the deposed leader of Grabar-Kitarovic's party, the opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which is now looking for a replacement. All of this puts Grabar-Kitarovic in a bind, as the shape of any new government is likely to be less to her liking.

WATCH: Serbian and Croatian leaders have taken part in a series of symbolic gestures in a renewed effort to repair strained relations.

Serbian And Croatian Leaders Meet Aiming To Mend Relations
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Yet as if the country's deepening political crisis was not enough, the president waded headlong into the fallout from the actions of Croatian fans at the ongoing Euro 2016 soccer championship. A group of Croatian fans threw flares during the match against the Czech Republic and fought with fellow supporters in Saint-Etienne on June 17. The troublemakers were promptly branded "sports terrorists" by the Croatian team's coach, and Grabar-Kitarovic poured oil on the fire by referring to them as "enemies of the state, and haters of their homeland," calling for an emergency meeting of the government to deal with the issue. (There were fears that the Croatian team might be ejected from the competition, but in the end the Croatian Football Federation escaped with a 100,000-euro [$113,395] fine and the threat of a ticket-sale ban.)

After meeting with representatives of the Serbian minority in Croatia, Vucic and Grabar-Kitarovic took a short helicopter ride to the Serbian town Donji Tavankut. It is a village near Subotica, in northern Serbia, with a majority ethnic Croatian population. Welcomed with applause by the locals, they visited an art gallery and attended performances organized by local cultural associations. It was a rather unlikely choice of location for Grabar-Kitarovic's first visit to Serbia.

Agreeing To Disagree

Despite the cordial atmosphere, the most divisive issues between the two countries remain. Talking to Croatian TV before the meeting, Vucic claimed that he was ready to open any question. Yet some questions are clearly more difficult to broach.

"I am aware that if we invoke certain emotional topics, we will not find common ground. If we were to talk about the Croatian 'Storm' [the military operation that led to Croatia's liberation in 1995] 99 percent of Croats would see it as a heroic event worthy of celebration. At the same time, 99 percent of Serbs would consider it as the darkest day of their life because Serbs were expelled from their homes."

Neither Vucic nor Grabar-Kitarovic are ready to deal with the issue of Operation Storm. Serbia is still not ready to accept its responsibility for starting the war, while Croatia is not prepared to start a serious discussion about the crimes committed during its liberation. Their solution is to respectfully agree to disagree.

It seems that both Vucic and Grabar-Kitarovic imagine relations between the two countries in which Serbs recognize the Croats' right to celebrate Operation Storm, while Croats respect the Serbs' laments over its outcome. Conflicting truths about the most painful period in recent shared history are somehow meant to coexist, without affecting mutual relations. Repressing collective emotions and refusing to face the facts -- by both sides -- is surely not the basis for any meaningful progress and regional cooperation.

Perhaps in spite of the sound bites about meaningful talks, the leaders' summit will not achieve anything apart from its symbolic importance -- but in relations between Serbia and Croatia, neighbors and erstwhile foes, symbols count for something.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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