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20 years after the Balkan War

20 years after the Balkan War

From 1991 to 1995, Serbs and Croats were locked in a bloody civil war, which cost over 100 thousand lives, mostly civilian. Since the fighting ended, efforts have been made to overcome the divisions between the two nations. To what degree have they been successful?

The Serbian-Croatian war resulted from political, cultural and economic conflicts that led to the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The military confrontation had gruesome consequences: thousands killed, many of them savagely murdered, hundreds of thousands wounded, death camps, massacres of civilians, mass expulsions, rapes, torture, plunder, hundreds of villages and towns in ruins, with some razed to the ground (the effects of the conflict have been summed up in a number of publications, including ’The Bosnian Book of Dead').

For these reasons, the possibilities of reconciliation between the nations right after the armed conflict were low. ‘It wasn’t only due to the fact that the wounds were still fresh, but also because authoritarian regimes remained in power in both Croatia and Serbia’, explains Dr Wiktor Hebda from the JU Faculty of International and Political Studies, whose research activity has been focused on the sociopolitical situation in the Balkans.

Dubrovnik. Left: Grand Hotel, damaged during the war. Right: a picturesque street. Licence: CC-BY

Fragile rapprochement

Despite the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, contacts between the two nations were initially very limited. Political pressure by Western European countries failed to improve this situation. It was as late as at the turn of millennium that the death of Croatian president Franjo Tuđman and the removal of Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević from power led to a new quality of mutual dialogue. The democratisation of both countries pushed them to a preliminary agreement and led to the warming of relations between Zagreb and Belgrade. ‘Serbian-Croatian relations in 2000–2003 can be described as the initiation period’, adds Dr Hebda. ‘It was the time of signing of a number of bilateral agreements which dynamised the economic contacts. Political relations also improved’.

Verdan Smailovic gives a concert in the destroyed National Library building in Sarajevo, 1992. Photograph by Mikhail Evstafiev, CC-BY-SA

According to the JU scholar, the period 2003–2006 can be considered the golden age of Serbian-Croatian relations. It’s when the political will to reach an agreement and improve the relations emerged. ‘Unfortunately, in late 2006 there was a breakdown, the results of which are still visible’, Dr Hebda continues. ‘This was linked to Kosovo wanting to gain independence from Serbia. It’s also worth adding that Serbs themselves consider Kosovo the cradle of their nation. For them, losing this land doesn’t only mean losing some territory, but, more importantly, being cut off from their own roots’. It was where the Serbian national identity emerged in the Middle Ages and where the Serbian Empire was established in 14th century by King Stefan Dušan. ‘Croatian support for Kosovo’s independence infuriated the Serbs’, Dr Hebda comments. ‘Croatia, which was then applying for membership in NATO and the European Union, took the side of the majority of EU states, which supported independent Kosovo. The Croatian ambition and desire to show Serbia who has more influence in the region shouldn’t go unmentioned either’.

No agreement or treaty was negotiated by 2008, and there were still a lot of unregulated issues. As a matter of fact, the diplomatic relations between both countries were frozen. In February 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence. Paradoxically, this led Serbs and Croats to return to negotiating table. ‘Unfortunately, it was when contentious issues, which had so far been ignored, re-emerged. The most important of them was the problem of war criminals’, says Dr Hebda. ‘Instead of reaching an agreement, the talks led to an escalation of the dispute. The Criminal Tribunal in Hague had indicted and tried the highest ranking leaders, whereas the problem of ordinary soldiers, who were to be tried locally by Croatian and Serbian courts, remained unsolved. Both judiciaries were reluctant to pass sentences in such cases. During 15 years, very few war criminals were given prison sentences, and even fewer of them were actually punished.

The families of war crime victims are still searching for the murderers and oppressors of their loved ones. Several thousand people are still missing. In many cases, the names of war criminals are known, but they are still at large, which further aggravates the sense of injustice. The memory of war is especially strongly cultivated in Croatia. General Ante Gotovina, who led the Oluja operation in 1995, is widely respected, and viewed as a role model by many young people. Although the Hague Tribunal acquitted him of war crimes, he is responsible for mass expulsions of Serbs from Croatia. During the Oluja (‘Storm’) operation, between 200 and 250 thousand Croatian Serbs were forced to leave their homes. Several hundred of them got murdered. Today, there are monuments and street names commemorating the events from 1991–1995 in every Croatian city. In Serbia, it isn’t as important, since the war was mainly fought on Croatian and Bosnian soil.

An approaching breakthrough?

Ceremony commemorating the Srebrenica massacre, 2007. Photo: Adam Jones, CC BY-SA

It seemed that a breakthrough would come after 2010. Much hope was placed on Social Democrats’ coming to power in Croatia. Members of this party openly advocated the need for reaching an agreement and normalising the international situation in the Balkans. This was related, among other issues, to Croatia’s EU membership negotiations. ‘Unfortunately, the hopes proved unfounded’, comments Dr Hebda. ‘The Croats more and more frequently played the European card and used their influence among Western European leaders in their negotiations with Serbia. At the same time, the populist Serbian Progressive Party, advocating strategic partnership with Russia, ascended to power in Serbia’.

The current state of Serbian-Croatian relations can be described as stagnation. According to one expert, they are even deteriorating, one of the symptoms of which is the arms race between the neighbours. ‘What makes the conflict worse is that it’s – obviously – rooted not only in the political but also in the social reality’, adds Dr Hebda. ‘The rise in nationalist feeling can be observed in both countries. During one of my visits to Croatia, I was even told that it would be better if I used English, instead of Serbian, even if it means that somebody doesn’t understand me, as using Serbian can trigger resentment or even aggression’. The Serbo-Croatian language widely used several decades ago got split into separate national languages. Both languages are similar, and their main difference lies in the palatalisations.

Sadly, the war also led to degradation of mutual relations on the economic level. The movement of persons is also limited, and mixed marriages, once popular, are now discouraged. Since the end of the war, there has been a sense of mutual hostility and lack of will for reconciliation. Thus, the Serbian-Croatian antagonism can be characterised as multilayered and very complicated. The town of Vukovar remains a symbol of the conflict. Located at the border between the countries, it was left in ruins during the Serbian siege. Actually, the Croats lost the battle, but regained the town when the war ended. At the moment, Vukovar is inhabited by a 30 percent Serbian minority, who, according to the Croatian law, can use their own language and alphabet in the public sphere. Yet, the law isn’t respected and the so-called conflict over Cyrillic has been going on for many years. Plaques with names of streets or institutions written in Serbian are frequently destroyed. Vukovar is one of many places where the conflict between Croats and Serbs is still visible.

We tend to forget that a little more than 20 years ago, a military conflict that claimed more than a hundred thousand lives took place in the very heart of Europe. Unspeakable atrocities were committed, some of which fall under the definition of genocide. It should be stressed that both sides are responsible for these events. Sadly, there is no sign that reconciliation between Serbs and Croats is going to happen anytime soon.

Original text:

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