24.09.2015, The New York Times,Croatia and Serbia Trade Barbs as Migration Crisis Strains ties

The New York Times, 24.9.2015.


LONDON — The migration crisis in Europe is fanning old tensions in the Balkans, prompting a war of words in a region where bloody memories run deep.

After Croatia, under strain from an influx of migrants, closed its borders with Serbia and banned the entry of Serbian vehicles and citizens, the Serbian Foreign Ministry replied on Thursday with unusually harsh language, comparing the measures to those taken by Croatia’s Nazi puppet state during World War II.

Croatia blamed a computer glitch for the restrictions on Serbian citizens. But the Serbian Foreign Ministry was apparently unmoved, writing in a protest note to the Croatian Embassy in Belgrade that the actions against holders of Serbian travel documents were unprecedented “in the civilized world.”

“In their discriminatory character, they can only be compared with measures taken in the past, during the Fascist independent Croatia,” the letter said, invoking the racial policies of the Ustashe, the Fascist movement that ruled Croatia during World War II.

Serbia said on Thursday that at midnight, the police had begun to enforce a ban on Croatian goods and cargo vehicles entering the country in what Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said was retaliation against Croatia for closing its borders, a measure Serbia claimed immediately affected its economy.

The Serbian Chamber of Commerce told the broadcaster B92 that Serbian companies were considering a lawsuit against the Croatian government for economic losses incurred by the closing.

Mr. Stefanovic said that Croatia had not responded to Serbia’s request to open its borders, and he accused the country of engaging in a form of “economic aggression.”

“Serbia has been forced to take these measures,” he said. “We are not satisfied or happy; we are only protecting our country.”

The Serbian response prompted a stern rebuke from Croatia, which accused Belgrade of aggravating tensions.

“We had planned to open the border today, but now we have to react to this,” Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic of Croatia said on Wednesday, referring to Serbia’s actions.
“There will be no war or violence, everything will be calm, but this is not normal behavior” by Serbia, he said, according to Reuters.

Tens of thousands of migrants, blocked from Hungary, have been streaming into the bordering countries of Croatia and Serbia in recent days. Serbia has been busing migrants who arrive in the country almost immediately to Croatia.

Serbia and Croatia are accusing each other of mismanaging the migration crisis, and diplomatic relations have slid to one of the lowest points since the aftermath of the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The crisis was bound to pose an economic challenge in the Balkan region, where countries with already strained welfare states and high unemployment are not equipped to deal with the sudden influx of people.
Now it threatens to revive old enmities. Historical wounds remain in Serbia and Croatia, which were both part of Yugoslavia before it was violently ripped apart during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

People in both countries still bitterly recall the 1991-95 war, which erupted after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Tens of thousands of Croats and Serbs died, and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. After the war, thousands of Serbian refugees left Croatia, and many sold their homes.

The mutual acrimony between the two countries was so potent that until 2014, there were still no direct flights between their capitals, the last commercial flight having been more than two decades before.

The lingering animus was displayed recently in the Croatia border town of Vukovar, where bilingual signs containing Latin and Serbian Cyrillic lettering were torn from municipal buildings or smashed with hammers. The signs were ostensibly installed to meet European Union minority-rights regulations. But the town’s council banished the signs in a vote that caused outrage from across the border.
In recent years, however, tensions between the countries have been easing as economic ties improved and as Serbia seeks to follow in Croatia’s footsteps by joining the European Union. Serbs, who vacationed in large numbers on the Croatian coast during the era of the former Yugoslavia, have been slowly returning.

Now, however, the migration crisis threatens to undermine progress.

Jelena Milic, director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, a policy research institute in Belgrade, said unresolved bilateral issues would now almost certainly become more complicated by the migration crisis. Such issues include the property rights of Serbs expelled from Croatia and the rights of the Serbian minority to use the Cyrillic alphabet in Croatia. Cooperation between war crimes prosecutors in the two countries may become more problematic, she said.

Moreover, Ms. Milic said, Croatia could use the crisis as a pretext to try and undermine Serbia’s negotiations to enter the European Union, while potentially hardening resistance among Serbs to joining a bloc some view as being too slow in accepting it as a member. “This increasing rhetorical war is affecting Serbia more than anyone else,” she said. “I think it will definitely have implications on the Serbian position toward E.U.”

Tanya Staric, a political commentator from Slovenia, said that unhealed wounds from recent wars and lingering territorial disputes were not enough to explain why countries in the region were erecting barriers. Rather, she said, the countries were simply losing control because their capacities were so strained.

“Croatia started off nicely with the refugees,” she said. “They were welcomed and nicely received, with a humanitarian approach, food and water on offer.”

“But they ran out of food quickly and the reception centers remained empty because these people want to go on, to Austria, Germany,” she said. “It quickly turned ugly.”