After a long reconstruction path, the Croatian presence in the international arena acquired an entirely new valence. The access to the European Union brought valuable benefits to the country: it contributed to the rise of its economic potential and, most importantly, it contributed to securing Croatian political status in the Balkan region. Indeed, even though the Croatian war of independence ended in 1995 and weapons were formally laid down, tensions remain at grassroots level. Apart from the formal construction of institutional and political bridges, a widespread feeling of mistrust continues to affect part of the population. War time memories still play a crucial role in social dynamics between the various ethnicities present in the region.

Croatia-Serbia Relations

Croatia-Serbia relations continue to be tense. This had become evident in 2015, when Croatia banned Serbian citizens and cars from entering its territory in response of Serbian ban on Croatian cargo traffic.[1] This initial ban by Serbian authorities was due to the border restriction Croatia carried out in order to block the migrant flow into the country during the surge of the migration crisis.[2] However, the divergences between the two countries are rather rooted in territorial claims and the post-conflict memories which still contribute to a constant tension between the two neighboring countries.

Only in January, the presidents of Croatia and Serbia vowed to resolve the boundary dispute along the Danube River in Eastern Slavonia. They agreed also to seek international arbitration if negotiation will not succeed in reaching a common ground between the two counterparts. “As for the past, we agree on almost nothing but at least we understand that the other side has a different view” said the Serbian president Vučić in that occasion.[3] Instead, in August 2018, in occasion of the anniversary commemoration for the Serb victims of Croatia’s Operation Storm, the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić compared Croatia’s policies toward Serbs during the war to Adolf Hitler’s policies toward Jews: “Hitler wanted a world free of Jews and Croatia wanted a country free of Serbs”.[4] It is clear that the complex relationship between the two countries have not favoured a truly peaceful reconciliation yet. On the contrary, war scars still impact on crucial issues of people’s daily life.

Vukovar

The Danubian city of Vukovar, located in Eastern Slavonia and centre of the Vukovar-Syrmia County, is one of the most problematic areas in Croatia due to its bloody past, its proximity to the Serbian border and the deep division of its society. Vukovar was completely destroyed in a three-month siege led by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and various Serb paramilitary militias between August and November 1991. The city represented one of the most deeply damaged and violently contested cities between Croats and Serbs. Once reconstructed, the city did not manage to come to term with this destructive legacy. For 27 years, the attempts to heal the wounds of its community were almost unsuccessful. Today, the city remains highly segregated between Croats and Serbs and both communities see it as their respective ultimate bastion: for Serbs, it is their furthermost enclave in the territory of Croatia and for Croats, it is the symbol of their untouchable sovereign status. Both communities carried out hostile acts to further this divide (such as destruction of road signs with cyrillic letters[5] from one side and the lack of participation of the Serb population in war time commemorations). The division is not just ideological, but it involves everyday life. Schools, bars and social activities are divided according to people’s ethnicity. The most controversial case is the learning environment itself. In Vukovar (as well as in other towns on Eastern Slavonia such as Tenja and Dalj), schools are designed to separate Croats and Serbs: there are schools in which only a certain ethnicity can be admitted in, others oblige children to attend classes according to different shifts (generally Croats in the morning and Serbs in the afternoon), and still others maintain the same shifts with the mandatory division between Croats and Serbs into different classrooms.

Post-conflict dynamics: civil society efforts

So far, there have been various attempts by civil society organisations to reduce tensions generated by this oppressive division even among children. The Nansen Dialogue Centre, in one of its multiple centres around Europe and specifically in the Balkans, is an NGO located in Osijek (Croatia), with the aim of promoting inclusion in the multi-ethnic communities of Eastern Slavonia. Most of their practices involve children’s education in Vukovar area. On the basis of Erdut Agreement[6] and later integrated by the Croatian law[7], the UN first intention was to secure minorities rights. However, even though laws appear being well formulated, there have been huge problems of implementation. As a matter of facts, this favoured even more division within the population itself: division in schools promptly meant labelling children and their respective families according to their ethnicity and, consequently, leading them to segregation. The work of the NGO has been constantly obstructed by political oppositions and this, of course, influenced the local population.

The Croatian government authorised the NGO to create a book for children about interculturality. Even if this might seem an outstanding achievement, the other side of the coin is very controversial. Classes of interculturality must not be given by the centre itself and cannot be included into the mandatory schooling programme. Therefore, teachers can organise, only on a volunteer basis, optional classes, outside the normal curriculum of studies. Parents might allow or not their children to attend those extracurricular classes. However, the organisation did not stop working toward the ideal of ethnic inclusion between Croats and Serbs. Even though local and national political opposition has been very strong, Nansen Dialogue succeeded in getting funds for the creation of a mixed and integrated kindergarten. Most of the monetary contributions was given by Norway and the rest was donated by Lichtenstein and Island. However, the project has been hindered. In 2015, when the government turned from centre-left to right-wing, the new ministry appointed a politician from HDZ as director of the new school. From that point on, no book or toy saw a child. For this reason, Norway accused the Croatian government for not having respected the agreement, and for this reason they claimed their 1.2 billion euros back. [8]

As evidenced, post-conflict memories are still undermining Croatia-Serbia relations, both on an institutional and local levels, and especially in the border areas like Vukovar. Until now, the European Union membership of Croatia has not given the opportunity to the two counterparts to reacquaint. In addition to this, no definitive and concrete solutions have been found for solving these frictions. The current rise of nationalistic sentiments and movements across Europe are increasingly weakening European institutions as well as the possibilities of intervention. Consolidated old divisions in countries which experienced recent traumas such as Croatia and Serbia have not managed to develop effective antibodies against confrontational nationalism.

Angelica Vascotto

M.A. in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies


References

[1] The Telegraph, Croatia Bans Serbian Citizens from Entering Its Territory After Belgrade Blocked Croatian Goods, Reuters, 24 September 2015, available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/serbia/11887095/Migrant-crisis-Serbia-bans-Croatian-goods-as-row-intensifies.html

[2] The Telegraph, Refugee Crisis: Croatia Seals Border Crossings with Serbia, Matthew Holehouse, 18 September 2015, available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/hungary/11873012/Refugee-crisis-Hungary-declares-victory-in-border-strategy-as-migrants-head-to-Croatia-instead.html

[3] Bloomberg, Balkan Rivals Vow to Solve Long Standing Border Dispute, Jasmina Kuzmanović and Misha Savić, 12th of February 2018, available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-12/balkan-rivals-vow-to-solve-long-standing-border-other-disputes

[4] Balkan Transitional Justice, Unsolved Past Events Are Cooling Down The Relations Between Serbia and Croatia, Anja Vladisaljević, 7th of August 2018, available at: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/unsolved-past-events-are-cooling-down-the-relations-between-serbia-and-croatia-08-07-2018

[5] Balkan Transitional Justice, Croatia War Veterans Trash Cyrillic Signs in Vukovar, Boris Pavelić, available at: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/vukovar-bilingualism-introduce-faces-violent-resistance

[6] Basic Agreement on the Region of Eastern Slavonia and Western Sirmium, available at: https://peacemaker.un.org/croatia-erdutagreement95

[7] The Constitutional Act on the Rights of national Minorities in the Republic of Croatia, available at:  http://www.sabor.hr/the-constitutional-act-on-the-rights-of-national-m

[8] Jutarnji List, Škola koja je trebala biti primjer integracije i dijaloga nema ni jednog učenika, Nikola Patković, Mirela Lilek and Vid Barić, available at: https://euractiv.jutarnji.hr/PiD/obrazovanje/skola-koja-je-trebala-biti-primjer-integracije-i-dijaloga-nema-ni-jednog-ucenika/7965822/