News 20 Jul 15

Croatia, Serbia Trade Barbs Over ‘Storm’ Celebration

Politicians from Zagreb and Belgrade have been exchanging harsh words over the upcoming 20th anniversary of Operation Storm, which saw Serb rebels’ hold over Croatian territory crushed.

Sven Milekic
BIRN
Zagreb
Aleksandar Vucic. Photo: Beta.

Croatia’s planned celebration of the anniversary of its victorious military offensive in early August has sparked a public row with Serbian officials - a sign that the two countries still hold strongly opposing views of Operation Storm despite the passing years, analysts said.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said on Saturday that any other country that send troops to participate in a celebratory military parade in Zagreb on August 4 would “offend Serbia” and would be seen as “anti-Serb”.

During Operation Storm in August 1995, Croatian forces regained control of 18 per cent of the republic’s territory that had been held by rebel Croatian Serbs from 1991. In the operation’s aftermath, 600 mostly elderly Serb civilians were killed and more than 200,000 Serbs fled the country.

Croatia invited all NATO member states to send their troops to participate in the anniversary parade. But last week, the US, Britain and Germany indicated that their forces would not take part, while Slovenia withdrew its previous decision to send soldiers and military planes.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said on Friday that it would also be an insult for Belgrade if foreign officials attended the parade.

“Some ministers have called us [Serbian government] and asked if Serbia would experience it as an insult. I told them myself that it would be an insult, because we believe there is nothing to celebrate that day,” Vucic told reporters.

But Croatian Defence Minister Ante Kotromanovic said that Vucic’s statement was not credible considering his past as a hardline Serbian nationalist during the 1990s wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“A comment by someone who in the 1990s, with a rifle in his hand... is not the least bit credible,” Kotromanovic said in a press release.

“As for these latest attempts at balancing out the guilt, and making the victim equal to the aggressor, I want to make myself perfectly clear - we know very well who the aggressor was, and places like Vukovar [destroyed by Belgrade’s forces in 1991] and Srebrenica [where over 7,000 Bosniaks were killed by Bosnian Serbs] make it very clear who the victim was, too,” he added.

Vesna Pusic. Photo: Flickr.

Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic on Monday sought to play down foreign countries’ decisions not to participate in parade, saying it would put Zagreb’s military in the spotlight.

“This is our celebration that rises to the level of a national event and it’s really only our, Croatian ‘thing’,” she said.

Croatian political analyst Zarko Puhovski said that the anniversary of Operation Storm had long ago become a “traditional dispute in this period of the year between Croatia and Serbia”.

“Croatia is marking the operation in which it liberated its territory; Serbia, on the other hand, wants killed Serb civilians to be commemorated in the first place. Both are in part right, in their attempt, in my opinion, to hide their responsibility for jointly planned ethnic cleansing they committed [during the 1991-95 war],” Puhovski told BIRN.

“Fortunately, this quarrel between the two governments is coming during the summer and not in October and November, for example, when it could potentially do a lot more harm than now. This will all be forgotten after the summer, not causing any additional deterioration in relations,” he added.

But Dusan Janjic, the head of the Belgrade-based Forum for Ethnic Relations NGO, said that the current dispute did have the potential to worsen relations between Croatia and Serbia because both countries still interpret history very differently.

“The elites from the 1990s are back in government in both Serbia and Croatia. The latest statements are a step back for all of us, a step back to the 1990s,” Janjic told BIRN on Monday, pointing to the recent regained strength of the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, which held power during wartime, as well as Vucic’s premiership in Serbia.

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