AIM: start

TUE, 11 DEC 2001 00:07:10 GMT

The Danube on Ice

AIM Zagreb, November 30, 2001

When the Croatian and Yugoslav presidents, Stjepan Mesic and Vojislav Kostunica, respectively, signed a joint statement at a summit of Central European heads of state in Verbania at the beginning of summer, much praised by the international community, the Racan government responded icily. The media were informed that the statement issued by the two presidents, which the world perceived as leading to a normalization of relations between Croatia and Yugoslavia, was not binding to the cabinet, that it did not intend "to give it much consideration" and would, instead, "operationalize our own concept of normalizing relations with Yugoslavia." It, furthermore, attempted to frame Mesic for allegedly dividing the guilt for provoking the war with Kostunica.

Obviously, the thick ice on the Danube did not even crack. Official Zagreb and Belgrade had much better relations while Tudjman and Milosevic were in charge then after democratic and pro-reform parties came to power. Diplomatic relations that were at the ambassadorial level have been downgraded to the rank of charges d'affaires. In a bid to demonstrate that it belongs to Europe, Croatia is turning its back on everything that lies east of its borders. In the past months Croatian foreign policy officials said and showed on a number of occasions that they are not overly interested in having normal ties with their eastern neighbor.

"We are not Slovenians, who immediately rushed to Belgrade," they said sarcastically. The cabinet, furthermore, issued a list of ten conditions Belgrade has to fulfill, which includes all sorts of issues -- from the handing over of Hague indictees to the Hague tribunal, especially the Vukovar trio, to demanding that, given relations between Belgrade and Podgorica, Yugoslavia finally define its borders.

Analysts believe that the Croatian cabinet is deliberately keeping relations with Serbia and Yugoslavia frozen for internal reasons, in order to avoid provoking rightists' rage. But this policy of indifference was several times criticized as irrational even by Mate Granic, former long-time foreign minister from the ranks of the Croatian Democratic Union, whose great diplomatic experience cannot be denied. His stance is that Croatia, if willing to join Europe, must prove its maturity by acting constructively and normalizing its relations in the region.

Similar messages have been arriving from Brussels. Under international pressure the Croatian and Yugoslav foreign ministers, Tonino Picula and Goran Svilanovic, met recently on the margins of a U.N. General Assembly session in New York. In a joint statement they announced outstanding and painful issues would be resolved and relations between Belgrade and Zagreb improved. According to them, a mixed commission for borders will be set up, and the Prevlaka issue would also be settled soon. The peninsula is still controlled by a U.N. observer mission. They also said that ambassadors would be exchanged soon. Yugoslavia obliged itself to return to Croatia the Vukovar art collection that was stolen during the war. Picula immediately said that Croatia's road to Europe passes through Belgrade, and Svilanovic said he was ready to come to Zagreb via Vukovar, with an apology.

But instead of making good on what it said, Zagreb sent Belgrade a new, reduced list of conditions: Croatia will normalize relations with Yugoslavia, that is, Serbia if the latter apologizes for its aggression and removes from the Serbian cabinet Momcilo Perisic, sentenced in Croatia to 20 years in prison for shelling Zadar during the war. Picula said: "Croatia expects an apology from Serbia for aggression and destruction;" "Croatia expects changes in the Serbian cabinet as a sign of true resolve to improve relations;" Croatia "cannot cooperate with a cabinet that includes Momcilo Perisic;" "Regular cooperation with such a cabinet would mean an indirect pardon."

Serbian Vice Premier Zarko Korac, who is very respected in Zagreb thanks to his democratic openness, responded to Picula. The Zagreb media carried his claims that the conditions posed by Zagreb will stall the normalization process in the region. He said Picula had every right to have clear and public views, but his interference in the makeup of the Serbian cabinet was unacceptable. Korac said that this could lead to new conditions being posed. Croatia is not sinless either. "I could say that the fact that very few Serbs have returned to Croatia is an obstacle for me to talk with the Croatian foreign minister. But, for me it is one more reason to meet with him," Korac said.

President Mesic recently accepted a similar view, by saying that conditioning normalizing works both ways. He said Croatia has reason to be dissatisfied in regard to Perisic, and has every right to express its dissatisfaction, but has no right to set conditions: "It is good for Croatia to say that Perisic's position in the Serbian cabinet will not help to establish mutual trust, but Croatia cannot determine the makeup of another country's cabinet," Mesic said. He believes that it is in Zagreb's interest to cooperate with Yugoslavia and Serbia and should not reject them. Thus it has once more been confirmed that the Croatian authorities are split on the issue: the president has one opinion and the cabinet another.

Mesic's stance that cooperation is needed precisely because of outstanding and painful issues is supported by the international community, which views the Croatian conditions as an unwarranted pretense. World power centers hold that Croatia is in no position to lecture anyone because it is quite uncertain who did more -- Zagreb or Belgrade -- in distancing itself from previous regimes, in cooperating with the Hague court, in showing readiness to apologize for the events in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example. In regard to this, both Croatia and Yugoslavia still have much to do.

Jelena Lovric