Friday

26th May 2017

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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • 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.

Same old scandals drag down Croatia's government

Scandals over oil money and World War II history, attacks on democratic standards risk unseating Croatia's government in a confidence vote just five months after it took office.

Analysis

Croatian election fuels regional tensions

Despite some conciliatory voices, Croatia's latest election has been overshadowed by nationalistic rhetoric, irking its neighbour, Serbia.

Analysis

Serbia and the convenient spy

The manufactured cold war between Croatia and Serbia has been a convenient distraction from some of Serbia's domestic problems.

News in Brief

  1. Malloch will not be US ambassador to the EU
  2. 'Significant' drop in EU migration to UK
  3. Bomb injures former Greek PM
  4. British PM to speak out on US terrorism leaks
  5. Tusk calls for 'values, not just interests' after Trump meeting
  6. Pressure grows on climate impact of EU timber harvesting
  7. US goes after Fiat Chrysler over emissions cheat
  8. Munich police break up Europe-wide burglar clan

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFChild Alert on Myanmar: Fruits of Rapid Development yet to Reach Remote Regions
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersBecome an Explorer - 'Traces of Nordic' Seeking Storytellers Around the World
  3. Malta EU 2017Closer Cooperation and Reinforced Solidarity to Ensure Security of Gas Supply
  4. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceHigh-Intensity Interval Training Is Therapeutic Option for Type 2 Diabetes
  5. Dialogue Platform"The West Must Help Turkey Return to a Democratic Path" a Call by Fethullah Gulen
  6. ILGA-EuropeRainbow Europe 2017 Is Live - Which Countries Are Leading on LGBTI Equality?
  7. Centre Maurits CoppietersWhen You Invest in a Refugee Woman You Help the Whole Community
  8. Eurogroup for AnimalsECJ Ruling: Member States Given No Say on Wildlife Protection In Trade
  9. European Heart NetworkCall for Urgent Adoption of EU-Wide Nutrient Profiles for Nutrition & Health Claims
  10. Counter BalanceInvestment Plan for Europe More Climate Friendly but European Parliament Shows Little Ambition
  11. Mission of China to the EUPresident Xi: China's Belt and Road Initiative Benefits People Around the World
  12. Malta EU 2017EU Strengthens Control of the Acquisition and Possession of Firearms

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsThe Cost of Speaking Out: Human Rights Violations Committed in Belarus
  2. ACCABanishing Bias? Audit, Objectivity and the Value of Professional Scepticism
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Oslo Climate Declaration Focuses on Rising Temperatures in the Arctic
  4. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceAbdominal Obesity: A Causal Risk Factor for Cardiometabolic Diseases
  5. EU Green Week 2017Discuss EU Environmental Policies With Industry Experts and Thought Leaders
  6. GEN Summit 2017Join the World's Leading Media Summit for Thought-Provoking Talks and Experiences
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsTogether for Human Rights: A Year in Review
  8. Malta EU 2017EU All Set for Free Roaming Starting 15 June
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersRefugee Unemployment Biggest Drain on Public Purse, Says New Nordic Studies
  10. Dialogue Platform17,000 Women, 515 Babies in Turkish Prisons, a Report Reveals
  11. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceCharlotte Hornets' Nicolas Batum Tells Kids to "Eat Well, Drink Well, Move!"
  12. ECR GroupSyed Kamall: We Need a New, More Honest Relationship With Turkey