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NO 133-134

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Helsinki Charter No. 133-134

November - December 2009


From a personal angle - Serbia and Croatia


Milan Simurdic

Ever since established in 1996, relations between Serbia and Croatia have been going through numerous phases. There were different and contradictory periods in these relations: from the mock cooperation and contention at the time of Milosevic and Tudjman, through normalization and first signs of reconciliation once the winds of democracy started blowing in these areas to the standstill on the account of Kosovo recognition to the present state marked by both countries' pro-European ambitions. And yet, no matter how complex they seem and how much burdened with the legacy of war and negative perceptions, these relations are progressing. Of course, the progress is neither smooth nor even. Apparently impossible until recently, a variety of actors - from governmental, through non-governmental to ordinary citizens in the first place - are now intertwined. Non-governmental players, businessmen in the first place, compensate inter-governmental blockades and disputes. And citizens, including more and more young people, instill the necessary stability into bilateral relations and encourage them further.

Serbia's and Croatia's ambitions for EU membership provide a frame for the ongoing Belgrade-Zagreb relations. While Serbia struggles to overcome the remaining obstacles on the path towards EU candidacy, Croatia, as of recently, heads towards closing the negotiations on accession. A situation as such stabilizes their mutual relationship and opens the door to the settlement of unsolved problems. Hence, it can be said that relations between the two countries will continue progressing as long as their foreign policy goals and priorities - membership of EU - coincide. The support they are providing to each other in this matter testify of authenticity of their aspirations. Settlement of remaining problems would significantly help both Serbia's and Croatia's speedier movement towards EU.

The aforementioned "European frame" already greatly influences bilateral relations and dialogue. In addition to bilateral relations, Serbia and Croatia are developing their regional and multilateral ties. This is crucial for the process of stabilization and association and relates, above all, to CEFTA, Energy Community of South East Europe, future transport community and "Open Sky" agreement. These forms of regional cooperation and sectorial integration are prep work of sorts for EU accession. Energy and transport communities accommodate Serbia's and Croatia's laws in two areas of crucial importance to Brussels's present policy. Strengthening of regional cooperation, in addition to obvious interdependence, produces more and more forms of mutual solidarity. However, Kosovo's independence declaration hinders some forms of regional cooperation: Serbia insists that Kosovo participates solely within UN Security Council 1244 Resolution, whereas the government in Prishtina would not accept it.

In addition, Serbia and Croatia are making progress in the domain of EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy /CFSP/. As a candidate state, Croatia regularly and consequently backs all EU declarations on CFSP. As a potential candidate, Serbia does the same, though selectively. Actually, both countries are thus meeting the requirements of the Stabilization and Association Agreement. So, their emerging partnership in the domain of foreign and security policy may positively influence other areas of bilateral relations too.

And yet, the dialogue between Belgrade and Zagreb oscillates between the past and the future, between the closure of the tragic chapters of ex-Yugoslavia's disintegration and the opening of mutual avenues towards EU, the most successful peace and developmental project in the history of Europe. The problems plaguing bilateral relations come from the past, while the European future - though not freed yet of potential problems - comes at the top of the two country's agenda. Therefore, they compete both over the issues of the past and partnership in the future.

Of course, Belgrade-Zagreb dialogue is not conducted in a vacuum. Each of the two sides brings in its plans, ambitions and problems. Belgrade gives priority to political matters, whereas Zagreb to economic cooperation. And Zagreb's actions depend on its international standing and priorities. In parallel with processes of EU integration, Serbia tries to safeguard its territorial integrity and sovereignty toppled by Kosovo's independence declaration. Hence, Belgrade develops the concept of a multi-sectorial foreign policy and multiple "strategic partnerships," including reliance on member-states of the Non-aligned Movement. For its part, Croatia has not only made a considerable progress towards EU but also become a full-fledged member-state of NATO, which strengthened its regional influence and position. No wonder, therefore, that Belgrade and Zagreb differently perceive solutions to open problems and no wonder that their relations combine the elements of cooperation and rivalry.

After separation from Montenegro, Serbia now for the first time develops relations with Croatia on its own. Apart from the unsolved problems dating back at the time of the war and the complex issue of succession, Croatia's recognition of Kosovo independence heavily weights bilateral relations. Moreover, Zagreb has promptly appointed an ambassador to Kosovo. Though Bulgaria and Hungary did the same, Belgrade responded to Zagreb's motion by recalling its ambassador "for consultation," which froze the political dialogue. The International Court of Justice decision on the admissibility of Croatia's charge against Serbia for genocide additionally burdened bilateral relations. Belgrade responded fiercely, announcing to file a counter-charge. In addition, Serbia was more than dissatisfied with Croatia's argumentation in favor of Kosovo before the International Court of Justice in December 2009. When it comes to misunderstandings and unsolved problems, Belgrade and Zagreb will be probably meeting more frequently in courtrooms than at negotiating tables.

However, the dialogue was somewhat restored to normal in early 2009 when the then premier, Ivo Sanader, paid a visit to Belgrade. The two sides agreed that "there is no agreement" on the issue of Kosovo and begun resetting their relations in accordance to European agenda. And yet, the second summit meeting, agreed on in principle, has not been realized so far. No matter how much the political - and, in particular, the diplomatic - dialogue still trembles due to Kosovo and some other subjective factors, other areas of bilateral contacts continue progressing. The global economic crisis, notably recession in Europe, has not much affected economic cooperation. Major manifestations of protectionism and market closing have not taken place - and that further encouraged the relations between Belgrade and Zagreb. In 2009, their trade amounted to almost one billion USD. Croatia did not reduce its investment in Serbia, whereas Serbian companies' investment in Croatia remained marginal, which may be due to local communities' reserves about Serbia. In 2009, the two countries signed several agreements and exchanged some significant visits. They signed an agreement on cooperation in the domain of European integrations and an agreement on economic cooperation, and negotiated the agreements in the areas of health insurance and protection of minorities. Contacts between the two ministries of the interior were dynamic and resulted, among other things, in an agreement on police cooperation and readmission.

On the other hand, no progress had been made when it comes to the most difficult problems. No mutually acceptable solutions are in sight. Until recently the dialogue between Belgrade and Zagreb was marked by a tacit agreement on a step-by-step approach, implying tackling "easier" problems first. Now it reached the stage when the two countries have to come to grips with most delicate topics with potentially complex consequences on public and political factors in both. Paradoxically, this is where major breakthroughs might be made.

Namely, a major breakthrough has been made in some areas of bilateral relations, notable those related to the legacy of war. This was mostly due to the progress made in judicial and police cooperation, and relates to war crime tries, lists of persons convicted or accused of war crimes, search for missing persons and the fight against organized crime. It became evident that solely national solutions cannot address the problems of war crimes and organized crime as their common roots are in the legacy of the war. These problems call for bilateral close bilateral cooperation, based on mutual trust, and on regional approach. The split of the biggest opposition party in Serbia, Serb Radical Party, objectively abated the resistance to development of bilateral relations with Zagreb, as it considerably reduced public support to the party's revisionist attitude towards Croatia.

The atmosphere of bilateral relations is rather burdened by the absence of sustainable and lasting solutions to the problem of refugees, including their property and tenant rights, reconstruction of infrastructure and other aspects of this complex political, economic and psychological issue. Each standstill in bilateral relations additionally reduces the room for the dialogue on this problem, threatening to constantly impair both the relations and the atmosphere necessary for neighborly ties. The problem of the position of Serb community in Croatia is closely connected with this. Presently, the Serb community undergoes the process of political consolidation, strengthened by its support to HDZ coalition government in two terms already. However, impaired relations between Belgrade and Zagreb negatively affected the dynamics and the dialogue with the Serb community in Croatia, which now keeps a low profile. Be it as it may, only open, transparent and partner relations between Belgrade and Croatia's Serbs and their political representatives open the door to the development of bilateral relations. The same refers to Croat community in Serbia, despite the fact that the problematic is different and necessitates a different approach.

Delineation and establishment of the borderline between the two countries is probably the biggest challenge for two diplomacies. The fact that this is about an area where no conventional state border has been registered in history, as well as diametrically opposite stands by Belgrade and Zagreb - despite the signed Protocol on the Principles of Delineation - indicate upcoming, complex negotiations. Actually, the borderline has been under discussion already, but the talks were more formal and substantial. One can, therefore, expect the two countries to turn to international arbitration, as envisaged by EU's Strategy for Enlargement.

Finally, Serbia and Croatia specifically meet and compete in the mutual neighboring state - Bosnia-Herzegovina. Though not formally on the bilateral agenda, Bosnia-Herzegovina is an integral part of the overall Serbia-Croatia relationship. To both of them, Bosnia-Herzegovina is the most important neighbor in political, economic and security terms, and last but not least, because Serbs and Croats make constitutive nations in the state the constitutional arrangement of which is still stipulated by the Dayton Peace Agreement, as a unique multiple and peace-making contract. A number of complex factors related to the legacy of war and functioning of Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with the its blocked European integration, negatively affected the overall situation in the country and gave an upper hand to centrifugal forces over centripetal ones. Misunderstanding and conflicts among political leaders of the three national communities and between the two entities multiplied. Particularly Serbia has many reasons to be reserved about disputes within Bosnia-Herzegovina and to realize its special relations with Republika Srpska only within the frame of its relations with Sarajevo. It has many reasons too, to support European integration of its closest of all equally important neighbors. The rumor about the policy of compensation or rearrangement of the Balkans after Kosovo independence harms Belgrade and questions the authenticity of its EU aspiration. Official Zagreb's reserved approach to Bosnia-Herzegovina seems to be crucially determined by its advanced progress toward EU accession and, in particular, NATO membership. Anyway, Bosnia-Herzegovina will probably be the most important test for EU plan to integrate the entire region. Serbia's interest in regional stability and development, as well as in its own progress towards EU, calls for caution and constructiveness. Any impulse in that direction coming from Serbia or Croatia - and preferably from both of them together deprived of rivalry, no matter how unrealistic that might seem - would encourage the challenging Butmir process, and contribute to regional stabilization and consolidation.

Ever since the establishment of diplomatic relations, Serbia's and Croatia's presidents have been those who crucially determined the contents of Belgrade-Zagreb dialogue: Milosevic and Tudjman in the first phase and, after changes in both countries, Mesic and Kostunica, and Mesic and Djukanovic in parallel. On the eve and immediately after the separation between Serbia and Montenegro, it were Mesic and Tadic who were lending the basic tone to bilateral relations. From that angle, the outcome of presidential elections in Croatia will bring in new elements and a new actor in bilateral relations. Under Croatian Constitution, the President is invested with enough power in foreign policy to considerably influence Belgrade-Zagreb relations. A new Croatian president will be a "pro-European." For, according to most analyses, Croatia will be admitted to EU membership by 2015. Therefore, the new president, rather than the government only, will have work hard to solve the pending problems with neighboring countries, including Serbia. To what extent a newly elected president will follow in the footsteps of Mesic's proactive approach to the region and neighbors remains to be seen. However, it goes without saying that a change in presidency in Croatia invests the Western Balkans - precisely, all the countries emerging from ex-Yugoslavia (except for Montenegro) - with a new leadership team, which cannot but affect the entire network of bilateral relations and regional cooperation as a whole.

Despite all potential risks standing in the way of future relations between Serbia and Croatia, objective indicators of their trend and expectations from the two countries are to be found in EU progress reports for 2009. It should be noted that respective reports positively assess Serbia's and Croatia's relations with their neighbors. The Croatia report is somewhat more precise and demanding, as it dissects the country closer to the membership. It pinpoints the need for settlement of border disputes with neighbors, property issues and return of refugees. The aforementioned strategy actually indicates Brussels's expectations from Croatia. The Croatia report also underlines that bilateral issues growingly influence the process of enlargement and, therefore, should not impede it. According to the strategy, solutions should be sought for in accordance with UN Charter principles for peaceful resolution of disputes, including those before the International Court of Justice. Brussels's stance is clear-cut - it stems from border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia, which not only caused bilateral problems and hindered Croatia's movement towards EU, but also had larger regional repercussions. EU will no longer tolerate such situations, says Brussels.

Elaborating the strategy for enlargement, the outgoing commissioner for enlargement, Olli Rehn, said "there will be no enlargement concessions." Such a brief but meaningful statement stands for a warning to all aspirants to membership. Apart from radical reforms leading to modernization, adjustment and implementation of European legislation, it warns Belgrade and Zagreb about the need to settle their problems and pursue neighborly relations. Of course, it also warns them about the need to develop regional cooperation, a permanent element of neighborly relations for all regional players. Authenticity of pro-European aspirations towards one's neighbor is manifested through proactive approaches, settlement rather than accumulation of problems, partnership and cooperation rather than rivalry and disputes.

Milan Simurdic, president of the Forum for International Relations, European Movement in Serbia
SRY/Serbia-Montenegro Ambassador to Croatia in 2001-2005


NO 133-134

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