Old foes Serbia and Croatia unable to leave past behind

Old foes Serbia and Croatia unable to leave past behind

Belgrade (AFP) - Twenty-one years after they were at war, relations between Balkan neighbours Serbia and Croatia are mired in bitter exchanges, as they struggle to turn the page on their past.

Croatia, which joined the European Union in 2013, and Serbia, which is negotiating accession to the bloc, both claim to be attached to European values, cooperation and good neighbourly relations.

But in practice the former enemies -- who established formal diplomatic relations in 1996 -- are finding their opposing views on recent decisions related to their history a constant source of quarrels.

Both countries were among the six republics making up communist Yugoslavia, which began to fall apart after two of them -- Croatia and Slovenia -- proclaimed independence in 1991.

While Slovenia faced only a 10-day battle for sovereignty, Croats fought Belgrade-backed Serbs for more than three years in a conflict that claimed 20,000 lives and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

On Friday, Croatia celebrated the 21st anniversary of its victory in Operation Storm, a four-day offensive that saw it seize back a key area held by Serb rebels and practically ended the conflict.

But what to Zagreb was a "liberation" and "resounding victory" in 1995 is remembered as a "pogrom" by Serbia.

More than 200,000 Serbs were forced to flee their homes by the offensive and hundreds were killed, although the figures vary -- the Croatian Helsinki Committee puts the toll at 667 and the Serbian government at 2,500.

- Revisionist history? -

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic even referred to a "criminal final solution" during a commemoration for Serb victims of the operation on Thursday.

He lamented to a crowd of tens of thousands that in the space of just 70 years, the number of Serbs in Croatia had shrunk dramatically in what he called "the greatest ethnic cleansing in the history of Europe".

Before the war, Serbs in Croatia accounted for about 12 percent of the population compared with four percent today of the country's 4.3 million people.

Overshadowing the contentious military anniversary this year is a string of political and judicial decisions that have heightened tensions between the two Balkan nations.

Croatia has opposed Brussels' decision to open negotiations with EU candidate Serbia on its judicial system, fundamental rights and security.

The hurdles, according to Zagreb, include Belgrade's cooperation with The Hague-based UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and political representation of minorities.

At the same time, Belgrade has protested recent court rulings in Croatia, especially the Supreme Court's quashing of a verdict against a former lawyer convicted of war crimes for killing Serbs.

Another verdict overturned last month -- also angering Belgrade -- was the communist-era conviction of controversial Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac for collaborating with the Nazi occupiers and Croatia's pro-Nazi regime during World War II.

In overwhelmingly Catholic Croatia, many see Stepinac as a hero, saying he saved thousands of lives -- including many Serbs -- as well as showing attachment to an independent Croatia and unwavering faith in the face of communist persecution.

But Belgrade sees the Croatian court decisions as revisionist history and a "rebirth of Nazism".

- 'Diverting attention' -

Ivo Rimac, an analyst at Zagreb University, said Belgrade's reaction to recent events was "logical".

"The complacency of (Croatia's) government towards the activities of the extreme right and the promotion in the media of pro-Nazi ideas has directly provoked the deterioration of relations," he said.

Adding fuel to the fire was the opening of a monument in the Adriatic town of Draga in tribute to Miro Baresic, a Croatian nationalist who was sentenced to life in prison in Sweden in 1971.

He had been convicted of participating in the murder of the Yugoslav ambassador in Stockholm.

But Rimac also recalled Serbia's rehabilitation last year -- to the dismay of Zagreb -- of royalist General Draza Mihailovic, who was sentenced to death for collaboration with the Nazis.

Mihailovic had launched the Chetnik movement, notorious for war crimes against other ethnic groups in the Balkans including Croats.

In June, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic and Serbia's Vucic signed a joint declaration on "improving relations" -- but the document risks remaining unfulfilled, especially with the EU facing more pressing matters than Balkan relations.

With Serbia yet to form a government following an April election and Croatia holding snap polls in September after a fragile right-wing government fell over a conflict of interest affair, analysts say the ongoing external rows could be useful for political elites.

"Quarrels with neighbours are helpful to divert attention," said Serbian political analyst Dusan Janjic.