Croatian foreign minister Miro Kovač said on April 15 he hoped Serbia’s ethnic Croat minority would get a permanent seat in the Serbian parliament, in line with a 2004 agreement.
Kovač’s statement came the day after he reiterated that Zagreb will insist its conditions are met before it gives the green light for the opening of Chapter 23, which covers the judiciary and fundamental rights, in Serbia’s EU accession negotiation process. Opening of negotiating chapters requires the unanimous decision of all EU members.
Tensions between the two countries have been rising since April 8 when a regular meeting of the Committee on EU Enlargement of the Council of the EU (COELA) working group ended without Croatia's approval to open Chapter 23.
The Croatian government demands that Serbia to abolish its local jurisdiction in war crimes for all members of former Yugoslavia, guarantee the Croat minority’s rights in Serbia and ensure full co-operation with the Hague war crimes court.
"It is absurd and perverse [for] the country from which war plans were launched for the area of former Yugoslavia to behave like a policeman and a judge," Kovac said, according a statement on the Croatia foreign ministry website.
However, an April 13 comment from the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) says that the Serbian regulations regarding the reservations made by Croatia "are basically in line with international standards", but "Croatia would like to induce Serbia to make larger concessions."
On April 15, Kovač met representatives of the Croat minority in the autonomous Serbian province of Vojvodina, who told the minister they wanted to see the implementation of the Serbia-Croatia agreement, under which they should get a guaranteed seat in the Serbian parliament.
Slaven Bačić, one of the leaders of the Croat community in Serbia, said Belgrade had introduced new rules as a result of which only the two biggest minorities, Hungarians and Bosniaks, could pass the threshold to take parliament seats. Kovač told journalists he hoped at least one parliament seat would be allocated to the Croat minority. Serbia is due to hold parliamentary elections on April 24.
Bilateral relations between the two members of former Yugoslavia always carry tension due to historical conflicts. Serbia aims to open two new accession chapters by end-June and enter the EU by 2019. Since Croatia, as an EU member since 2013, has a veto right, the Serbian government is obliged to convince the Croatian side if it is to realise its goal of EU accession despite the historical conflicts.
In a leaked document, the EC warned the Croatian government that abolishment of Serbia’s local jurisdiction in war crimes for all members of Yugoslavia, including Croatia, should not be a condition to open Chapter 23. However, Kovac said that the document was old and for internal use only.
Croatian deputy prime minister Tomislav Karamarko said on April 7 that the Croatian government will not block Serbia’s EU accession efforts. However, Serbia must meet all standards imposed by the EU, he added, referring to the amendment of the Serbian law regarding the jurisdiction for war crimes.
Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic defended the law on April 11 and also argued that Croats almost always have a representative in Serbia's parliament.
The Croatian stance could be damaging not only for Serbia but for the Western Balkan region. “The fact that Croatia has raised contentious issues at an early stage of the accession negotiations indicates that it will use the EU enlargement policy to force its neighbours to make concessions,” warns the OSW report.
“This involves the risk that it will have negative implications for its own long-term goal, that being stabilisation and EU membership for the remaining countries of the Western Balkans. This concerns not only Serbia but also Bosnia and Herzegovina, with which Croatia is involved in many disputes...”
Tension among former Yugoslavian nations escalated recently after on March 31 the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, acquitted Serbian nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the civil war in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Only a week earlier, on March 24, it sentenced Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to 40 years in jail after finding him guilty of genocide.