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H.E. Hidajet Biščević, Croatian Ambassador To Serbia

How Are We As Neighbours?

I have no desire to wrangle with the public and media atmosphere created here around the “case of Petrovačka cesta” [1995 war crime], because I would then have to pose numerous questions: why did that “refugee column” even occur; what was the context; what happened prior to that event; why was “Operation Storm” launched in the first place; how come the Hague Tribunal investigators didn’t find any reason in that specific case to launch a legal process; why was the “case” initiated almost 30 years after the fact? ~ Hidajet Biščević

Relations between Croatia and Serbia are experiencing a low ebb, says Croatian Ambassador Hidajet Biščević in this CorD Magazine interview. In his analysis of the current state of affairs, Ambassador Biščević says that Croatia remains committed and ready to develop good neighbourly relations on the basis of principles of mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs, in the context of European principles and values. He sees the development of these relations, which he believes are crucial to regional peace and stability, as being obstructed more on the Belgrade side.

Your Excellency, speaking in the first interview you gave for the Serbian media as ambassador two years ago, you said that your goal is “for relations between Croatia and Serbia to reach the level of good neighbourliness, equality, mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of the two countries, thereby contributing to the permanent stabilising of this part of Europe”. How would you comment on the assessments we’ve been able to hear in recent months about bilateral relations being at an extremely low level?

Unfortunately, mutual relations are, as you say, at a very low level. However, on the Croatian side, as a long-term strategic goal and interest, conviction remains, as well as an orientation, towards establishing relations based on those same principles that I mentioned in that long-ago conversation: equality, good neighbourliness, mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs. I would add to this the notion of resolving the outstanding issues exclusively through political dialogue, refraining from any kind of imposition or provocations. That’s not something I’ve invented, and Croatia didn’t invent it either – those are fundamental principles of international relations, that’s the essence of the Helsinki Accords. So, allow me to honestly analyse the actual situation regarding each of these principles in real life.

Good neighbourliness? Do we see one another as good neighbours? A neighbour is someone for whom you have understanding, with whom you discuss problems, a neighbour is someone you help, neighbours don’t have to be on perfect terms, but that’s why rules exist. And, honestly, where are we?

Next, mutual respect? Unfortunately, we witness attempts to humiliate, renounce, downplay and usurp – from politics to linguistics, history…

Ukraine is burning, flames are smouldering around Taiwan, climate change is frying people and drying up the rivers; the international order is collapsing as it did in the Middle Ages, rockets are flying, old spies have been awakened, Serbia stands between two worlds, facing the biggest challenge in its modern history… and here I am, sitting in Batrovci, because instructions were sent down to “slightly delay” the ambassador with a diplomatic passport!

I’ll move on, to the principle which is perhaps the most important – non-interference in internal affairs. How do we stand on that front? Considering all our differences, it would perhaps be illustrative to mention that this principle was introduced into international practise back during the clash between East and West, at the time of the adoption of the Helsinki Accords – meaning that the USA and Russia [USSR], two very different and opposing worlds, adopted this principle during the 1970s, in order – among other things – to open the door to détente, as a phase in easing the consequences of their competing on ideological and security fronts. Is this principle applied in our relations? No, we don’t see our bilateral detante. Of course, I cannot avoid asking the logical question – why? Why are these key principles not applied? I must be candid, open, and therefore “undiplomatic” in my answer: Croatia does not have a problem with a single one of these principles. I’m not idealising the state of affairs – I’m not blind to the fact that there are those in Croatia who would, according to the old saying, swap their “political position for a better geographical location”, just to “avoid the neighbour”. But, that’s a marginal narrative in our country, which, by the way, is most often “fed” by the moves, statements and writings of those in Serbia who basically don’t accept any of the aforementioned principles of mutual relations, those who prolong narratives from the past. To recap and conclude: Croatia remains committed and ready to develop good neighbourly relations, on the basis of the aforementioned principles, in the context of European principles and values.

The most recent tensions in relations came in response to the Croatian authorities’ opposition to the President of Serbia visiting Jasenovac, a site of great suffering during World War II. Why is that visit deemed a “political risk”, as it was explained in Zagreb?

Considering that this “case” is also one of the examples of non-observance of the aforementioned principles of mutual relations, in the sense of political dialogue and reaching agreement, allow me to be completely clear and precise.

Firstly, Croatia has repeatedly condemned the severe suffering that happened at Jasenovac and shown respect for the victims… and I am not saying this in order to draw attention to the attitude of other nations regarding other crimes committed in these lands throughout history and during recent history. Focusing public attention on one crime – which, as I stated, has been condemned on our part – cannot detract from the existence of, or eliminate, other crimes. Secondly, it is indisputable that the procedures are known at the levels of high officials… In other words, if there is an attempt to circumvent them, that opens the door to questions: why, for what purpose? Again, the same question – whether highlighting one crime detract from the severity of another etc, opening a “competing vicious circle”. Do we need this? Do our new generations deserve it? I’m not that profile of man. I strongly believe that there is no politically justified murder, of one person, one hundred thousand people, eight thousand people…

Is there still a special control regime in place for the entry of Croatian officials into Serbia, which was introduced as a reciprocity measure, and has it led to the cancelling of any planned visits?

Look, recently I was sitting in my car in Batrovci, as an accredited ambassador on my way back to Serbia, delayed, if not obstructed for more than an hour… and I was thinking nonsensical the whole situation was, how contravene to everything that is going on in the world. Ukraine is burning, flames are smouldering around Taiwan, climate change is frying people and drying up the rivers; the international order is collapsing as it did in the Middle Ages, rockets are flying, old spies have been awakened, Serbia stands between two worlds, facing the biggest challenge in its modern history… and here I am, sitting in Batrovci, because instructions were sent down to “slightly delay” the ambassador with a diplomatic passport! How far form realities, like some sort of gameshow in the midst of a burning world. Is that a contribution to normalising relations? What conclusions do I draw from that?

If you still consider “Croatian-Serbian relations crucial to the stability, peace and security of this part of Europe”, how can the prevailing narrative be changed?

It is undeniable that Croatian-Serbian relations are crucial to peace and stability in this part of Europe – what’s more, under today’s circumstances, when the confrontational mood has prevailed in relations between the West and Russia, creating many unknowns about the geopolitical configuration in that “interspace” between the West and Russia, when we shouldn’t exclude the possibility of some new “dividing lines” in the middle of Europe, that relationship between Croatia and Serbia is even more important. The prospects of peace and stability in this part of Europe would be totaly different were we both part of the same security system, and completely different again, even potentially very dangerously different, if that would not be the case.

You personally pointed out that there long haven’t been (since 2019) any meetings between Croatian and Serbian officials at the higher levels. Under the current circumstances, could such meetings result in any positive effects?

As always, those kinds of meetings must be prepared with the utmost seriousness and precision. Honestly, under the current circumstances – when relations with Croatia are being used in the public and media space here, completely unjustifiably, and often inappropriately, as an “exhaust valve” for some other challenges and problems – it is tough to imagine meetings at the higher levels. It was pre cisely in an effort for us to move beyond the “residues of the past” that we proposed suitable meetings at working levels, to create a kind of “inventory” of our relations, to see where we stand, what needs to be done regarding the most important and sensitive issues, to make a kind of “road map” and set out on a new course. Unfortunately, there was no response.

It is undeniable that Croatian- Serbian relations are crucial to peace and stability in this part of Europe – what’s more, under today’s circumstances, when the confrontational mood has prevailed in relations between the West and Russia, creating many unknowns about the geopolitical configuration in that “interspace” between the West and Russia

And so, it is precisely the unresolved and open issues – I’ll also mention the most painful: missing persons – that make it more difficult to work on improving relations in real political life. And lastly, and most importantly: Serbia cannot contribute substantially to improving relations if it continues to sweep the recent past under the carpet. Serbia needs to face that past. For the sake of its relations with its neighbours, but also for its own sake…and I notice that Serbian people are recognizing this. How can we expect the sincere and substantial, and honest, improvement of relations if – I’ll return to the last example – charges are raised on the basis of so-called universal jurisdiction in yet another attempt to assume the role of the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia, declaring its own jurisdiction on the territories of other sovereign, internationally recognised states, without any of the restrictions that are integral to international law? Croatia is a member of the European Union and certainly wouldn’t have become a member if its judicial system hadn’t been evaluated as being functional. I will add something else – similarly to the “Jasenovac case”, where is the observing of procedure; why wasn’t the documentation submitted to the Croatian judicial bodies? This inevitably raises questions about the actual objectives of such an approach. Such a stance is contrary to the rule of law, international law and international criminal law, and dosen’t contribute to the building of good neighbourly relations.

You believe that Croatia’s interest is in EU expansion and Serbia joining that community. You have stated repeatedly that Croatia will not block that process. However, the President of Croatia announced recently that the indictment of Croatian pilots over the shelling of refugee columns in August 1995 on the ‘Petrovac Road’ represents “unintelligent conduct” on the part of the Serbian leadership, which violates its accession process obligations and brings Serbia’s EU entry into question. Could dealing with the past become part of the trade-off in that process?

I have no desire to wrangle with the public and media atmosphere created here around the “case of Petrovačka cesta”, because I would then have to pose numerous questions: why did that “refugee column” even occur; what was the context; what happened prior to that event; why was “Operation Storm” launched in the first place; how come the Hague Tribunal investigators didn’t find any reason in that specific case to launch a legal process; why was the “case” initiated almost 30 years after the fact?

In other words, I’m afraid this is yet another example of drawing attention to some individual case or event in order to distract from the bigger picture and avoid dealing with the real context of those times.

Do you understand the calls of Serb refugees from Croatia, but also among Croatians, to unblock the process of exhuming and identifying the victims of the war waged 30 years ago? Why is this procedure at a standstill?

I understand that call, and the right of every person, whether Serb, Croat or anyone else, to locate, identify and hand over the remains of the missing victims of those times to their families. Unfortunately, in contrast to the tenacious and devoted work being done on the Croatian side, here the entire “missing persons file” is obviously not in focus and is being side-lined. So, your question as to why, as you put it, the procedure is at a standstill, should be directed towards Belgrade.

You noted recently that cooperation between Croatia and Serbia lacks a “stronger dynamic” at the political level, though no such dynamic is lacking in the areas of the economy and trade. What do you consider as being the best examples of that economic cooperation?

The fact is that the economy and trade find their own routes to cooperation independently, or even despite a lack of “political dynamism”. The volume of the goods trade exchange has been at a high level for years, and in some sectors even maintains an upward trajectory. Also testifying to this is the fact that the exchange of goods didn’t fall significantly even during the difficult period of the pandemic.

Democratic Alliance of Vojvodina Croats was part of the ‘Zajedno za Vojvodinu’ coalition list. Their return to the National Assembly offers the potential for the stronger political affirmation of the Croat community in Serbia

Additionally, I recognise Serbia’s great dedication specifically to economic development, the modernisation of infrastructure etc., even though, quite frankly, I don’t understand the media’s need to present all such progress as some kind of “competing against Croatia”. Generally speaking, I still believe our cooperation should be strengthened in the fields of infrastructure and transport, in order to pull this entire part of Europe out of “traffic route darkness”. Even though, under the current circumstances, it should be recognised in real terms that this is also dependent on the future geopolitical developments.

How would you explain the fact, which was announced this summer, that an increasing number of Serbian citizens are spending their summer holidays in Croatia?

Honestly, I wouldn’t say there’s anything about that which needs to be specially “explained” – people choose for themselves and decide where they will spend their money. If that’s Croatia, considering the recent past, then all the better and all the more useful – people see each other, talk, communicate, and all of that alleviates tension and suspicions. As far as I know, this year almost 50,000 of your citizens are spending their summer holidays on the Croatian coast, and alongside that there have been almost 15,000 work permits issued for the tourism sector. So, this is about the personal choices of individuals and families, and about assessing the earnings of those who come to Croatia to work.

The new convocation of the Serbian National Assembly will include two MPs from the Together for Vojvodina [Zajedno za Vojvodinu] list, which is led by the Democratic Alliance of Croats. Do you consider this return of ethnic Croats to the Serbian National Assembly as having the potential to contribute to improving relations between the two countries?

More accurately, the Democratic Alliance of Vojvodina Croats was part of the ‘Zajedno za Vojvodinu’ coalition list. Their return to the National Assembly offers the potential for the stronger political affirmation of the Croat community in Serbia, possibly even at the executive level, though much of that will depend on their strength and capacity for action, the extent to which their initiatives are appreciated on the part of the authorities, but certainly also on the actual character of future bilateral relations. In this sense, every step forward brings us closer to the rights of Croats here becoming equatable to the rights of the Serb community in Croatia, and that would certainly contribute to improving our mutual relations.

BILATERAL RELATIONS

Unfortunately, we witness attempts to humiliate, renounce, downplay and usurp – from politics to linguistics, history…

JASENOVAC

I strongly believe that there is no politically justified murder, of one person, one hundred thousand people, eight thousand people…

TRADE EXCHANGE

The fact is that the economy and trade find their own routes to cooperation independently, or even despite a lack of “political dynamism”

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