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Warming Signs between Serbia and Croatia

The Western Balkans' most critical relationship, between Serbs and Croats, received a significant boost in recent weeks as Croatia's new president, Ivo Josipovic, and his Serbian counterpart, Boris Tadic, put on display what can only be described as a strong mutual affinity.

The two presidents met twice in a single week. After skipping Josipovic's inauguration earlier last month – because of the attendance of the president of Kosovo, which Serbia still regards as part of its territory – Tadic flew to Croatia to spend a day in the resort of Opatija with Josipovic in what both later described as a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. A few days later, the presidents joined a group of top EU and U.S. officials in Brussels to discuss the somewhat tired trans-Atlantic relationship, only to demonstrate that their own is geared up to blossom.

Josipovic told reporters that Tadic is "a politician who knows what he wants" in addition to being well-educated, tolerant, and ready to listen. For his part, Tadic said, "I truly believe in the best intentions of the Croatian president, who has already become a highly respected politician in the region," adding that Josipovic is also respected in Europe. "I saw the interest with which European officials listen to Josipovic's words."

The two presidents have much in common. Both are in their early 50s and both come from rather privileged backgrounds, which, coupled with the increasing cultural openness and affluence of the former Yugoslavia in their formative years, gave them a good education and exposure to socially enlightened influences. Culturally, they are as far as you can get from the predominant, boorish – or at best folksy – type of Balkan politician of the past two decades. The mild-mannered Josipovic is a renowned avant-garde composer in addition to being one of the region's top criminal law experts. To illustrate where Tadic is coming from, perhaps suffice to say that two of his closest advisers were members of one of Yugoslavia's cheekiest arty bands from the early 1980s.

Mutual affinity is, of course, no guarantee that Josipovic and Tadic will succeed in what many would like them to do: repair the Serb-Croat relationship and shape it into a strong partnership capable of carrying the region into a brighter, European future.

The two men don't wield the same amount or type of power. The two countries' constitutions don't give them much space for executive maneuvering. But while Tadic directly controls Serbia's government thanks to his leadership of the governing Democratic Party, Josipovic won the presidential race as the candidate of the opposition Social Democratic Party. His cohabitation with the center-right government of Jadranka Kosor has so far been rather businesslike, yet whenever Josipovic ventured into tricky territory – for example, when he met farmers who were at loggerheads with the government over subsidies, or when he talked of the possibility that Croatia would drop its genocide lawsuit against Serbia – someone from Kosor's cabinet would remind the public that such issues are not really within the president's remit.

Which is why Josipovic, rather than Tadic, felt the need to say after the Brussels meeting that the two presidents were "calling on our governments to solve the issues that burden Croat-Serb relations. We are talking border issues, the refugees, war crimes."

An important point about these and other Croat-Serb problems is that they are perfectly solvable. The passage of time or common sense has already either imposed solutions or offered obvious ones.

Take the border dispute between the two countries on the Danube River. It is really minor stuff compared with, for example, Croatia's complicated border disputes with Slovenia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. If the two sides can't agree on a solution, international arbitration is an obvious alternative and one that is almost certain to find a lot of supporters among the moderates in both countries. Yet before Josipovic floated the idea, no one really bothered to look at it.

Or consider those 150,000 Croatian Serbs who fled Croatia in 1995, most of whom remain in Serbia. No sane person in Croatia argues anymore that they should be denied citizenship and property rights. Croat nationalists have no doubt been helped in this leap by the simple fact that few are likely to actually return, even if warmly welcomed. Most of these refugees have established new lives in Serbia. Just think of the fact that those born during the war are, or will soon be, adult Serbian citizens. It is obvious, though, that the two governments should do everything in their powers to help those who do want to return and respect fully the property and citizenship rights of those who don't. Yet things on this front have moved much slower than they could have.

There are more than 1,000 Croats and Serbs who perished in the war but whose families still don't know yet how, where, and when. Again, you'd search in vain for a Serbian or Croatian official who would deny that this issue should be addressed urgently. Zagreb and Belgrade undoubtedly have the expertise and documentation that would enable them to address it efficiently. After all, the two countries' law enforcement agencies have cooperated impeccably on a number of organized crime cases in recent years, while the two armies have quietly established important ties. Yet there has been precious little movement on the missing persons issue.

Or take the cultural treasures plundered by Serbian forces during the war. No plausible Serb politician would deny that they should be returned, yet only a fraction of the plunder has actually been returned so far.

Economic cooperation between the two countries is often said to be good. But while Croatian businesses operate freely and often successfully in Serbia, Serbian business people have for years complained of obstacles on the Croatian market. Even though only fringe Croat politicians, such as the mayor of Split, now advocate discrimination against Serbian firms, the atmosphere for Serbian business in Croatia remains palpably hostile, in contrast, for example, to Serbian popular and highbrow culture.

Problems between the Serbs and Croats today are largely psychological. It has always been a bit of a love-hate relationship. The two camps have done some terrible things to each other in the past 70 years in addition to doing some great stuff together. Rivalry has characterized the relationship—and a poor and often catastrophic management of that rivalry even more so. Now that they no longer share a state, Serbia and Croatia find themselves in the uncharted territory of being divided by no truly difficult mutual problem. Who would have thought so? In fact, with just a bit of exaggeration, all of their problems can be viewed as coming down to who will pick up the phone first.

And that is exactly why the Tadic-Josipovic affinity matters. The two countries' political classes simply need a sunnier atmosphere to start solving the remaining legacy issues, an atmosphere in which a call to a colleague on the other side of the Danube is just that.

Intelligent Eastern Europe

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