AIM: start

MON, 24 DEC 2001 00:49:32 GMT

Restoring Diplomatic Relations

AIM Zagreb, December 17, 2001

Relations between Croatia and Yugoslavia have finally improved. Croatian President Stjepan Mesic received several days ago credentials from Yugoslavia's new ambassador to Zagreb, Dusan Simurdic, a diplomat unknown in Croatia, described only by the Zagreb 101 radio station as "a Croat from Split."

Two days before the final formalities related to the appointment of a new Croatian ambassador to Belgrade were taken care of. His name is Davor Bozicevic, also little known to the public, and was until now the Croatian embassy's charge d'affaires in Belgrade. The two appointments marked an end to a rather long de facto freeze on diplomatic relations between the two countries, established when Tudjman and Milosevic were still in power.

It appeared that the democratic change of government which official Zagreb has been boasting with for two years, and official Belgrade for slightly over a year, did nothing to put relations between the two countries in order. And this was quite a rare paradox. Regardless of Tudjman's and Milosevic's responsibility for the war, they arranged their peace-time diplomatic ties much better than their glorious successors, which is quite sad and it has been clear for months that they had to do something as soon as possible.

And it was indeed so: in the past week, it seems, more happened than in all of last year. Immediately after officials announced Bozinovic's and Simurdic's appointment, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic paid a short but dynamic visit to Zagreb. According to statements from both sides, it was an event of little practical significance. Only an agreement on avoiding double taxation and a protocol on cooperation between the two foreign ministries were signed, which are very basic documents when it comes to diplomatic ties. But, it was immediately clear that the atmosphere was quite different and that it opened a way out of the current stalemate.

Although two sides are usually needed for a stalemate and poor relations, this time the Croatian side clearly deserved most of the blame. Until recently it had rigorous conditions for normalizing relations with Belgrade, and even boasted publicly that it was in no hurry to do what Slovenia had previously done. It appears that despite recent events, Croatia will develop its relations with Belgrade with extreme caution.

In short, the current Croatian government is still afraid it will be criticized at home for going too fast in patching up relations with Yugoslavia, and has neither the strength nor the will to try to change public opinion. This is why, paradoxically, even people in charge of the foreign policy pursued by the Croatian Democratic Union (Mate Granic), have begun to criticize the current cabinet for being passive when it comes to relations with Yugoslavia, saying that it practically wasted an entire year. Obviously, in such a situation speed is out of the question and a more cautious approach will prevail.

This, however, does not diminish the importance of Svilanovic's visit and the appointment of the ambassadors; to the contrary: it makes it, in this light, even more important. This is why is came as no surprise that before arriving in Zagreb, Svilanovic was optimistic and said the visit would be a major step forward and would be felt in all areas of bilateral relations. Several weeks before he said he was ready to visit Vukovar and pay homage to the town's victims. He added, however, that in Croats' collective memory these victims have more or less the place Jasenovac has in Serbs' collective memory.

This showed that he believes that apologizing for what happened in the war is a two-way thing, not as something that can be demanded, especially not as an ultimatum, from only one side. His subsequent statement in Zagreb was along the same lines: he expressed his regret over the plight of "Croatian citizens," meaning, as he specifically put it, both Croat and Serb, as well as of citizens of Yugoslavia. Offering an apology which was also an explanation of the behavior of Croatian Serbs in the war, he said they were overwhelmed by fear of their past suffering, mentioning Jasenovac once more, and, as he put it, "made them less human then they should have been and prompted them to crimes."

Since the predominant opinion in Croatia is in favor of an unconditional apology, Svilanovic's words were hardly welcomed, and there were even signs that they could be publicly challenged. Croatian state TV in its afternoon news reported on the Svilanovic’s statement, saying that it would probably prompt a reaction from his hosts. In the evening news, however, no comments were made because there weren't any reactions. Instead, Croatian Foreign Minister Tonino Picula only mentioned the burden of the past, but added that easy to solve problems, such as economic and cultural cooperation, visa requirements, etc. should be worked on.

Clearly this means that the two sides had agreed to avoid all ethical issues of the past, simply because they are not yet up to that task, and to work on things that can produce results. That even such an approach can lead to somewhat more complicated matters was also shown by Svilanovic's statement, made a day before his arrival in Zagreb, that in talks with Croatian representatives the issue of three former Yugoslav People's Army officers, Mrksic, Sljivancanin, and Radic, charged by the Hague court with crimes in Croatia, would be brought up.

After his talks with Croatia’s officials, Svilanovic avoided responding when a journalist asked him if Yugoslavia would extradite the three officers, stressing only that Yugoslavia will continue to cooperate with the international court. This could mean that if extradition is being considered, the Yugoslav side does not want it to be perceived as being done under Croatia's pressure. A similar reaction accompanied Croatian requests that Momcilo Perisic, charged in Croatia with war crimes, be removed from the Serbian cabinet. It was seen in Belgrade as interference in the internal affairs of a neighboring country.

But it was not seen as such only in Belgrade. President Stjepan Mesic also criticized the Croatian cabinet and diplomats for making such a demand. He said that it was all right for people to say how they felt and express wishes, but not to issue ultimatums to the Yugoslav side. Consequently certain controversial issues first need to be clarified in Zagreb; then relations between the two countries will be under less strain, but that seems rather slow and inefficient. Unfortunately, all other controversial issues existing between the two countries will share the same fate.

Marinko Culic