Serbian and Croatian leaders put past behind them, meet for “historic visit”

Serbian President Boris Tadic (R) and his Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic (L) give a joint press conference in Belgrade after their meeting on July 18, 2010 (AFP Photo / Alexa Stankovic)
In an effort to put to rest age-old animosities, Serbian President Boris Tadic met with his Croatian counterpart, Ivo Josipovic in the Serbian capital of Belgrade on Sunday.

Josipovic and Tadic called for greater cooperation between the two former Yugoslav republics to resolve longstanding grievances between them, the most controversial issue being the countersuits pertaining to acts of genocide filed before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In 1991, Croatia began its war of independence from The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), a six-republic federation whose capital was situated in Belgrade. The hostilities, fought between Croats and Serb-backed forces (living both inside the country and beyond), were notoriously brutal and stained by a series of massacres allegedly perpetrated by both sides in the war.

Amnesty International put the number of those killed by deliberate acts of ethnic cleansing at close to half a million people, although others have put the number much higher.

As part of the reconciliation process, Josipovic said Croatia would request that Belgrade release classified documents involving the “Vukovar hospital massacre,” where, during the war, it is alleged that Serb militias executed some 260 men.

Both leaders pledged to find solutions to outstanding issues as well, such as the return of war refugees. They also expressed support for an out-of-court settlement of the genocide charges during the course of the war that both governments had previously filed against each other at the ICJ.
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Meanwhile, many Serbians have lobbied unsuccessfully for the return of property that they were forced to surrender in the final moments of the war when some 200,000 Croat-Serbs escaped into Serbia. Although this will certainly be a point of discussion during the two-day talks, both sides will go to extra efforts to “set an example” to the rest of the Balkans that good neighborly relations are possible in the region.

On the first day of a two-day visit to Serbia, the Croatian leader made a symbolic gesture of planting a tree in Belgrade's Friendship Park, reported Radio Television Serbia (RTS).

Following their long-awaited talks, Boris Tadic said Serbia wished for the “best possible” relations with its neighbor and former enemy, while Josipovic responded that both countries shared the goal of peace and stability and were searching for ways to put to rest the past.

An incentive for peace

Behind the diplomatic gestures and handshakes, there lies a powerful incentive to bury old animosities: membership in the European Union.

Indeed, Brussels has no intention of offering membership to two sides that will only argue inside of the clubhouse, thus Zagreb and Belgrade announced their common goal of joining the European Union.

The Croatian-Serbian relationship is important for the long-term stability of the Balkans, and as the most influential former Yugoslav republics, many analysts believe they can have an impact on nearby Bosnia, where segregation between various ethnic groups has been a recurring problem since its own bitter war of independence in the 1990s.

Croatia started EU accession talks in October 2005, and it is possible that it will be a full-fledged member by 2011. Serbia remains a “potential candidate” for EU membership, but must meet specific criteria first, including adhering to democratic principles, establishing the rule of law and embracing a market economy.

Although Serbia may have a long way to go before achieving EU membership, it maintains strong bilateral relations with other countries in the region, including Russia.

In October, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev approved a 1bln-euro ($1.5bln) loan to Serbia to help the country cover its budget deficit.

Announcing the loan, the Russian president lauded the strategic partnership between the two countries, while mentioning the planned South Stream natural gas pipeline, which would bring a steady flow of Russian gas to Europe via the Balkans.

The ongoing talks between the Croatian and Serbian leaders represent the first step toward realizing such dreams, which not so long ago would have seemed impossible.

Robert Bridge, RT