Former Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told war veterans that Bosnia & Herzegovina is “not even a state”, while he accused Belgrade of wanting to “rule half the Balkans” and threatened to block Serbia’s EU accession process. Two weeks before Croatia’s September 11 general election, a recording of the meeting has gone viral across the Western Balkans after being published by Croatian daily Jutarni List.
Milanovic’s comments shocked listeners throughout the region as he was seen as a well-balanced leader, during whose mandate relations with Croatia’s neighbours and wartime opponents eased significantly and Croatia became an EU member. Furthermore, the fact that he made the insulting comments during the pre-election campaign raised fears that such messages are what Croatian voters want to hear. Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Milanovic was prime minister until the November 2015 election and leads a poll on Croatians’ preferences for their next prime minister.
It is not known who recorded the conversation between Milanovic and representatives of veterans associations, which was held on August 23 at the SDP headquarters.
The meeting’s main topics were implementation of Serbia’s law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes prosecution and the recent tensions between the two countries as well as relations with Bosnia, Jutarnji List reported on August 25.
The law has already been a source of tensions between Croatia and Serbia. For several months, Zagreb refused to approve the opening of Chapter 23 in Serbia’s EU accession process, demanding guarantees that Serbia would not abuse the law and that it would ensure rights for the Croatian minority in Serbia and full cooperation with the Hague war crimes tribunal. While it later allowed the chapters to be opened, Zagreb is still openly threatening to block Serbia.
“If necessary, not only are we going to block their EU accession negotiations, but we will adopt a special law which will allow us to prosecute their citizens who committed crimes in Kosovo,” Milanovic told veterans. He added that he is ready to take “measures against Serbia if necessary.
“Serbs are being presented as a diplomatic powerhouse... [but Serbia] is a handful of miserable people, unfortunately, who for 150 years don't know whether to move toward Macedonia, [the autonomous province of] Vojvodina, Bosnia, Croatia - they aren't even 10mn [people], f*** it! They want to rule half the Balkans," Milanovic said.
He also described the current Serbian government led by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic as “arrogant and pathetic”.
Moving on to Bosnia, Milanovic said the situation in the country was even worse.
“[Bosnia] is not even a state!... It is a big s***!” Milanovic said, repeating a comment made by some of the veterans present at the meeting.
“There is no law and order…We are dealing with some bad guys there,” Milanovic added.
He also warned that if Republika Srpska secedes from Bosnia, Bosnian Croats would be left in a country mostly inhabited by Bosniaks, and Zagreb “should act” if this happens.
The 1992-95 war in BiH was ended with the Dayton Peace Agreement according to which the country was split among two entities: Republika Srpska with a predominant Serb population and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a joint entity of Bosniaks and Croats. All three ethnic groups have equal status according to the Constitutional Act.
Two decades since the end of the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, Milanovic’s statements angered many within the region.
While Vucic declined to comment, Serbia’s president Tomislav Nikolic likened Milanovic to Ante Pavelic, the leader of the Nazi puppet state that ruled Croatia during the Second World War.
However, Nikolic said Belgrade would not retaliate. ”We will not close our border or break off relations with Croatia. We are still extending a hand of reconciliation and whether we will have good relations is up to Croatia," Nikolic told Sputnik on August 25.
Bosnian Foreign Minister Igor Crnadak said Milanovic’s insults had been out of line.
“I believe that someone contending to become Croatia's next prime minister and who has already been in that position should show more respect and tact when commenting on neighbouring countries and relations in the region. Milanovic has insulted Bosnia and Serbia and Serbs as a nation," the Fena news agency quoted Crnadak as saying.
“BiH’s Council of Ministers hoped to build the best possible relations with Croatia, however, Milanovic's statements now raised the question of whether that was possible,” Crnadak added on August 25.
Milanovic’s suddenly unveiled chauvinism surprised even the SDP’s right wing rival in the upcoming election, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), whose leader Andrej Plenkovic, described it as “a discussion in a pub”.
It is common for politicians in the former Yugoslavia to resort to nationalist rhetoric in their election campaigns, and Milanovic’s comments add to already tense relations between Croatia and Serbia as the elections approach.
The ongoing tensions have been fuelled by two recent decisions by Croatian courts - the annullment of the verdict against Catholic cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, a backer of Croatia’s Second World War Ustashe regime, and the scrapping of the verdict against Branimir Glavas, a former general and lawmaker who was convicted of war crimes against Serbs.
This was followed by series of protest notes and mutual accusation which exploded on August 4 and 5 when the both countries commemorated Operation Storm but in very different ways. For Serbs it is a symbol of suffering after more than 200,000 Serbs were expelled from their homes in Croatia, and thousands were killed. Croats consider it a victory, which led to independence and freedom.
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