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12 Feb 18

Dear Vucic, What Should We Talk About?

Damir Pilic

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic suggested that Serbs and Croats should avoid tensions by refraining from talking about their past differences for six months - but what else could they possibly discuss?

Aleksandar Vucic meeting Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic on bridge on Croatian-Serbian border in June 2016. Photo: Beta

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic seems to be a big jokester. At least, this is the way in which a good part of the Croatian public perceived his proposal to Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic to put a six-month moratorium on topics from the Serbian-Croatian past.

"Let's not talk about the past for six months" – it sounds like the desperate mantra of an ageing couple whose relationship has seen better days, trying to save what can be saved from passions gone by.

Indeed, Croatia and Serbia can be seen as an elderly couple.

First of all, for a few centuries, this couple shyly eyed each other up, then in 1918 said ‘yes’ in front of a registrar, after which they spent the next 73 years in a turbulent marriage with a lot of domestic violence and a civil war during World War II.

Then they definitively ended everything in 1991 with an armed divorce, although the former spouses cannot yet agree on whether it was a ‘civil war’ or ‘Greater-Serbian aggression’.

In this sense, the sentence "Let's not talk about the past for six months" can also be seen from a certain angle as a positive advice, in a psychotherapeutic sense, as temporary relief from heavy and bitter topics, in order to articulate some shared ideas that are acceptable for both sides.

That is why it may be a pity that in political terms, Vucic’s proposal is completely impossible.

If nothing else, it is impossible because of the psychological position of the Croatian president. Specifically, after inviting Vucic, she came under criticism from a good part of her voters who resent the nationalist past of the Serbian president and want a public apology for the statements he made in the 1990s.

"If the outcome of this visit is to shed light on the destiny on at least one of our missing [wartime] defenders or civilians, I will have been successful," Grabar Kitarovic said.

But if Vucic's proposal for a moratorium is realised, than it will completely prevent the realisation of Grabar Kitarovic’s plan: how will the two of them shed light on anybody's destiny if they decline to talk about the past?

Knowing that everyone knows about the nationalist speeches he made in the 1990s, Vucic has come up with a spectacular plan: to deflect unpleasant questions about his own past, he will escape into the future.

"Serbs and Croats have a conflict over the past. Serbs and Croats have no conflict over the future,” he said in an interview with the Croatian weekly news magazine Globus.

“Where are the conflicting interests of Croats and Serbs in the future? I can tell you that they do not exist," he added.

Just as swallows fly south to avoid the winter, and like pinguins go towards the South Pole to avoid the heat, so the Serbian president came up with the idea to escape from his tricky past into a bright and non-conflicted future. Too bad that this idea of escape is technically impossible, due to the limitations of physics.

Vucic's plan is also impossible because of the most banal, practical reasons.

If you take the issues of the past away from Croats and Serbs, they will not know what to talk about: they will no longer be an elderly couple, but two confused and tongue-tied adolescents on a first date, feverishly searching for a topic of conversation.

Besides that, the theme of the past is inexhaustible. Both sides have their strong points, but also their weak ones, so the arguments can go on forever.

For example, Belgrade can justifiably object to Zagreb that the WWII Ustasa movement is being rehabilitated in Croatia - but Zagreb can respond that the WWII Chetniks have already been rehabilitated in Serbia.

Zagreb can justifiably object to Belgrade that it is exaggerating the number of victims at the Ustasa’s Jasenovac concentration camp - but Belgrade can respond that because of the increased revisionism in Croatia, representatives of the Jasenovac victims have refused to join the official annual commemoration for two years now.

In other words, a Croat and a Serb can talk about the past endlessly, without ever agreeing with anything. Ladies and gentlemen, do you know any other topic that offers so much potential for conversation?

That is why Vucic’s proposal won’t work for so many reasons – and that's the problem with old couples like Croatia and Serbia: they’ve become too set in their ways to do things differently.

Talk about it!

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