26th Oct 2016

Croatia and Serbia in war of words

  • A giant Croatian flag was raised on Knin fortress to commemorate the 1995 operation Storm. (Photo: Croatian government)

Commemorations of the war in former Yugoslavia have again strained relations between Croatia and Serbia amid the rise of the far-right and reinterpretation of memories, in both countries, of World War Two.

On Friday (5 August) a ceremony in Knin, south-east Croatia, commemorated the 21st anniversary of Operation Storm, when in August 1995 the Croatian army took back around one third of the country's territory, held by Serbs since the start of the war in 1991.

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  • A ceremony was held in a Serbian cemetery near Glina for 59 unidentified people killed during operation Storm. (Photo: Eric Maurice)

About 200,000 Serbs fled or were expelled from the region, which had been "ethnically cleansed" of Croats four years before.

To commemorate the liberation, a giant Croatian flag was raised on Knin fortress in the presence of the military chiefs, acting prime minister Tihomir Oreskovic and president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.

In her speech, Grabar-Kitarovic — who is constitutionally the army's supreme commander — said that operation Storm was "politically justified [and] ethically pure".

"We can understand that Storm for many Serb refugees was a hard personal and historical experience," she said.

"We will never accept that Storm is measured by non-Croatian, even anti-Croatian standards, both outside and inside Croatia", she added.

Outside the official ceremony a Serbian flag was burnt and a group of 20 men in black uniforms marched through the centre of Knin shouting "Za dom spremni!" ("Ready for homeland), a slogan of the pro-nazi Oustacha regime of the 1940s.

The burning of the flag saw an official note of protest from Belgrade to the Croatian government.

Victims and veterans

At the same time, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, presided over a ceremony for Serbian war refugees, near Belgrade, criticising the Croatian celebrations.

“People were killed just because they were Serbs. They celebrate a victory, but what is their victory? They are rejoicing in our sorrow,” he said.

His foreign minister, Ivica Dacic also protested against the "ethically pure" remark by Grabar-Kitarovic.

"For Croatia, it is ethically pure to kill thousands of Serbs and expel over 220,000 of them," he said in a statement.

Two decades after the end of the war, wounds are still open between Croatia and Serbia, but also, between Croats and Serbs in Croatia.

On Saturday (6 August), the small town of Glina, 80 kilometers east of Zagreb, was also celebrating its liberation in 1995.

Veterans gathered in the 10,000-inhabitant town's center, where a photo exhibition retraced the story of local soldiers during the war years.

A few kilometres from there, in a small cemetery on a wooden hill, about 50 Serbs held a ceremony for 59 people whose bodies were exhumed there last year

The victims, all civilians, were presumably victims of air bombing of a military and civilian column fleeing to Bosnia during operation Storm. None have yet been identified.

Speaking at the small ceremony, the president of Croatia's Serb National Council, Milorad Pupovac, said all victims of the war, Serbs as well as Croats, should be honoured.

He said that the burning of the Serbian flag in Knin the day before had "frightened many" and that "the Knin celebration showed that hate is dominating Croatia".

But he said Serbs and Croats had an "obligation" to cooperate for "peace, reconciliation, sanctioning war criminals and turning towards the future".

Worsening relations

The controversy between Zagreb and Belgrade over operation Storm is the latest episode of worsening relations in recent months.

In September, the previous Croatian centre-left government closed the border with Serbia for several days to force Serbia to redirect refugees to Hungary.

Croatia then blocked Serbia's accession negotiations with the EU, requesting that Belgrade annul a law which allows it to charge Croats for war crimes .

In both Croatia and Serbia the far right has been getting stronger, nationalistic reinterpretations of WWII being both the cause and the result of that process.

In Serbia, Draza Mihailovic, the leader of the Chetniks, the Serb royalist forces which collaborated with Hitler and Mussolini, was rehabilitated in court last year. He had been sentenced to death for war crimes in 1946.

In Croatia last month, a court annulled a sentence against Alojzije Stepinac. A Catholic bishop, Stepinac was sentenced to 16 years in prison for treason and collaboration with the Oustacha regime.

In reaction Belgrade sent a note of protest to Zagreb.

The operation Storm celebration in Knin illustrated the atmosphere in Croatia just over a month ahead of a snap general election on 11 September.

Triumphalist political speeches dominated the stage, with some requesting the "lustration of the communists".

Meanwhile the streets of the city where flooded with all kinds of Ustasha symbols, from shirts with the symbol "U" to black military uniforms.

Just before Croatia's vote, Serbia will hold military exercises with Russia next to Croatia's border.

An arms race between the two countries could be starting, as several times in recent months representatives of both governments spoke of the necessity to buy arms to "protect" themselves.

Croatia and Serbia "are going back to 19th century," Serbian historian Latinka Perovic said in a recent interview for Radio Free Europe.

"Mentally, we didn't get out of the war period of the nineties, nor the paradigm which led to it has been changed", she said.

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