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The "stone flower" memorial at Jasenovac has served for decades as a gathering place for people to pay their respects to victims of the fascist Ustashe regime. (file photo)

Judging by the correspondence between Belgrade and Zagreb in the past few days, one could be forgiven for thinking that World War II has only just ended.

The latest strain in relations between Serbia and Croatia is connected with the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Jasenovac concentration camp, where around 100,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma, and anti-fascist Croats were killed by the Ustashe regime, a World War II-era quasi-protectorate under Fascist and Nazi patronage.

A "stone flower" memorial was built at Jasenovac in 1966, which for decades served as a gathering place for people to pay their respects to the Ustashe's victims and to reaffirm their commitment to ensuring that such crimes were not repeated.

However, for the third year running, the annual gathering has fragmented into rival commemorations. The Jewish community, antifascist groups, and the Croatian government paid their tributes to the victims on separate days, with the first two choosing to boycott the official event. Meanwhile, Croatian President Grabar-Kitarovic visited the site independently, a few days before the others' ceremonies.

The Serbian community, for its part, marked the camp's liberation in the village of Mlaka, near Jasenovac. The memorial liturgy and the consecration of the Church of St. Elijah were officiated by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej and the metropolitan of Zagreb-Lljubljana, Porfirije.

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin (file photo)
Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin (file photo)

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin had meanwhile been banned from attending the event at Mlaka after claiming prior to the commemoration that his right to travel to Croatia was not up to the Croatian government but "would be decided by the supreme commander of Serbian armed forces, [Serbian President] Aleksandar Vucic."

That assertion was seen as incendiary by the Croatian government, which immediately sent a protest note to the Serbian Embassy in Zagreb to the effect that Vulin was no longer welcome in the country.

The decision to ban Vulin from the memorial event was made by the Croatian Foreign Ministry on April 21.

Diplomatic Incident

It followed another diplomatic incident between the two countries last week, when the controversial leader of the Serbian Radical party, Vojslav Seselj, allegedly trampled on a Croatian flag, prompting a visiting Croatian delegation to leave Belgrade.

The rebukes from Belgrade over the snub of its minister came swiftly.

Vulin called it an attempt by Croatia "to silence those speaking about the crimes committed there." He told Serbian state television RTS: "The most terrible truth about Jasenovac is not just what happened but the fact that Croatia today refuses to repent for the crimes."

On April 23, Vucic said that he "did not understand" Croatia's decision, adding, "Serbia will probably react with reciprocal measures." He added that the Belgrade would formulate its response on April 26 but that one option was to build Holocaust memorials in Serbia with lists of all the victims of the Ustashe regime.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic (left) with President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic (left) with President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, also expressed her disappointment with Croatia's decision to deny Vulin the right to visit the country. But she struck a more conciliatory note. "These are not European values," she said, "but Serbia's main priority is regional stability, and for that reason we remain open to dialogue."

The exchange of diplomatic barbs between Zagreb and Belgrade has only turned up the heat on an issue that has been simmering for some time, reflected in the rival commemorations.

While the minister was banned from the Orthodox memorial service at Mlaka, Jewish groups have been boycotting the official event for three years.

Fascist Slogan

In an interview with the N1 TV channel, the president of the Zagreb Jewish community, Ognjen Kraus, cited the Croatian government's refusal to ban Ustashe symbols or the slogan "For the home[-land] -- ready!" ("Za dom -- spremni!")

"It's been getting worse for some time, because of a failure to do something that should have been done a long time ago," Kraus said. "The real significance of that salutation ["Za dom spremni!"] was never officially explained. It was never unequivocally acknowledged that all racial laws and other official documents issued by the NDH" -- the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet-state during World War II -- "were undersigned with that slogan."

He added that every order sending individuals to concentration camps also ended with that phrase. The words were effectively a death warrant for tens of thousands of people.

So, more than seven decades after the liberation of Jasenovac and the victory over fascism, the president of the Jewish community is forced to issue repeated requests for the government to ban the symbols of a murderous regime.

"We call on the government and parliament to pass legislation forthwith banning Ustashe symbols and slogans," pleaded Kraus. He also said that the Jewish community could not abide attempts to relativize the crimes of the Ustashe regime by invoking the actions of the partisan liberators of the country, or by claiming equivalence between the pro-Nazi NDH and the anti-fascist Socialist Yugoslavia.

'Not Good For Society'

The efforts by the Croatian government to combat the glorification of the Ustashe state have been criticized by some as too little, too late -- leaving it open to charges of hypocrisy from victims' groups.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, has pledged to do everything in his power to ensure that there will be no separate commemorations in the future because "it is not good for our society." He promised to work on bridging those divides. However, he did not seem inclined to defuse tensions with Serbia over this year's commemoration.

Serbian Prime Minister Brnabic said it was "unfortunate" that her Croatian counterpart had so far not returned her call, which indicated a lack of desire to resolve differences through dialogue.

She added that "nationalists on both sides are harming their respective countries" and that Serbia and Croatia needed to take a "time-out," and return to building the region's future, rather than dwelling on the past.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Opinion in Serbia is sharply divided over whether ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj's conviction on war crimes charges should prevent him from taking up a seat in parliament.

Following his international conviction on war crimes charges, opinion in Serbia is sharply divided over whether ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj should be allowed to take his seat in that country's parliament.

The Radical Party leader was sentenced to 10 years in prison by The Hague tribunal on April 11 for crimes committed during wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The ruling followed a partial reversal of his earlier acquittal on a wider range of charges.

Seselj was given time served after spending almost 12 years in pretrial detention at The Hague. Having been extradited voluntarily in 2003, he was released in 2014 on grounds of ill-health and was not present for the sentencing. Reinvigorated by his return, his party won 22 seats in the 2016 Serbian parliamentary elections.

Article 88 of Serbia's parliamentary election legislation disqualifies any elected official from holding a seat if he or she is sentenced to more than six months in prison. But the national assembly’s administrative council presided over by ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) member Aleksandar Martinovic is responsible for implementing this rule; Martinovic has appeared untroubled by Seselj’s conviction for crimes against humanity, reacting with surprise when asked whether the sentence would have any ramifications.

“What exactly is problematic about [Seselj’s] seat? He has served his time already,” Martinovic told RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau in an interview. He said he saw no reason for the council to deliberate on the matter.

[I'm] proud of all the war crimes and crimes against humanity that were attributed to me, and I am ready to repeat them in the future.”
-- Vojislav Seselj

Seselj’s own Radical Party was unsurprisingly quick to defend him. His deputy, Nemanja Sarovic, argued that “Vojislav Seselj stood for election and was elected after he had served that sentence.” Sarovic added that “there is no basis in the Serbian Constitution or law for stripping [Seselj] of his seat.”

Seselj himself was characteristically unrepentant. Speaking to both AP and RFE/RL’s Belgrade bureau, he said that he was “proud of all the war crimes and crimes against humanity that were attributed to me, and I am ready to repeat them in the future.”

But others have expressed concern over Seselj’s presence in parliament.

Although convinced that Seselj would not resign his seat, Progressive Party MP Dragan Sormaz said he was “uncomfortable sharing the bench with a convicted war criminal," suggesting that "it would send the wrong signal.”

Opposition MP Goran Bogdanovic was even more explicit, saying that allowing Seselj to remain in his parliamentary seat would signal Serbian parliamentary support for the crimes of which he has been convicted.

Nemanja Stjepanovic, of the Belgrade-based Center for Humanitarian Law, expressed even broader concern in connection with Seselj's fate.

“When it comes to Vojislav Seselj, we have to ask ourselves how we ended up here again,” Stjepanovic told RFE/RL. “How is it that the new generation, just like those before them who went to war in the 1990s, are once again taken in by his words and ideas, are amused by his cheap stunts," -- Seselj was notorious for mocking The Hague war crimes tribunal at every opportunity -- "are spellbound by his preaching, and are once more dreaming of a Great Serbia and fantasizing that this is attainable one way or another -- including through war?”

“As a society, we have not moved an inch from that time when the wars were being fought in the 1990s,” said Stjepanovic, adding that he was not surprised to see war criminals back in politics.

“It’s been happening for some time now. As one after another [war criminal is] released and given a ceremonial reception by the government on their return, they are being ushered back into public institutions.”

Vladimir Lazarevic enters the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague in January 2014. He was convicted for crimes against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo but is now a lecturer at the Serbian Military Academy.
Vladimir Lazarevic enters the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague in January 2014. He was convicted for crimes against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo but is now a lecturer at the Serbian Military Academy.

Stjepanovic cited the case of Vladimir Lazarevic, convicted for crimes against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, who is a lecturer at the Serbian Military Academy.

Meanwhile, Lazarevic’s fellow inmate, Nikola Sainovic, who was convicted of similar crimes, was reappointed on his return from The Hague to the same post he occupied during the war and up to the time of his extradition, as a member of the Executive Council of the Serbian Socialist Party. l

Stjepanovic said that former Yugoslav People's Army officer Veselin Sljivancanin, who was also convicted of war crimes and released on time served, was being invited to speak at rallies for the governing Serbian Progressive Party, the party of President Aleksandar Vucic.

One of the troubling aspects of the trend, Stjepanovic said, is that war criminals are being held up as moral authorities within Serbian society.

“[War criminals] are allowed to occupy positions of trust, to instruct us, and to interpret the past for us," Stjepanovic said, "glossing over the mistakes and failures from that past that led to wars and to war crimes.”

A recent poll conducted by the Belgrade newspaper Danas suggested that 70 percent of Serbian citizens oppose allowing convicted war criminals to hold public office. In other words, the reopening of the halls of public institutions and parliament to convicted or accused war criminals appears to fly in the face of public opinion.

“Of course, it’s a normal response for anyone with common sense and a kernel of humanity inside them [to oppose the idea] that war criminals should serve in public institutions. However, it’s a different matter when specific cases are raised," Stjepanovic said of the apparent discrepancy. "If we were to run the same poll but instead of the generic question ask whether Vojislav Seselj, after being convicted of war crimes, should be stripped of his seat in parliament, the percentage of those who would agree with this would be much lower. Even many of those who are not his party’s supporters would not want to see him leave public life.”

It is what Stjepanovic likened to regarding someone as "‘our’ or ‘their’ war criminal.”

Stjepanovic invoked the adage about those failing to recall the past being doomed to repeat it, with a twist: “It is a pernicious trend, and it ensures that those ideas from the past are never extinguished, so that one day, when the right time comes, they can be fully revived to terrible effect.”

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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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