The Serbian ministry of foreign affairs said on July 26 it handed over a protest note to the ambassador of Croatia in Belgrade, Goran Markotic, over the Zagreb district court's July 22 decision to annul the 1946 conviction of Catholic cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, known as a supporter of the Ustashe pro-Nazi regime.
The Zagreb district court decided to annul the 1946 conviction for treason on the grounds that Stepinac, who was convicted of treason and collaboration with the Ustashe in 1946, did not receive a fair trial. However, this has sparked anger within Serbia, where the foreign ministry said it had seen an increase in anti-Serbian sentiment in recent years.
The ruling has further raised tensions between the neighboring countries which often use “traditional” and decades-long disputes for internal purposes and almost always during election campaigns. Croatia is heading for elections this autumn, while in Serbia, which held parliamentary and local elections on all levels on April 24, a new government has not yet been formed.
The note reads that Serbia is "appalled" by the rehabilitation of the Nazi Ustasha Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which ruled Croatia during the Second World War, implied by the ruling.
“Stepinac's words at Easter 1941 that 'the Independent State of Croatia was created by the grace of God, the prudent and self-sacrificing work of the Leader [Ante Pavelic] and the Ustasha movement, as well as by the will of our allies [Hitler and Mussolini]', and that the 'Independent State of Croatia is the most illustrious event in the life of the Croatian nation', best speak about Stepinac and those rehabilitating him,” the ministry said in the note. It added that the United Nations and the European Union explicitly forbid restoration of fascism and fascist ideologies.
The Serbian ministry said in the note it has been worried because of the anti-Serbian mood which has been present in Croatia for years, and has shown a tendency to escalate.
Stepinac was the Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 until his death in 1960, including during the Second World War when the Ustashe actively collaborated with the Nazis. Many Roma, Serbs and others who opposed the regime were killed, including 83,000 who were murdered in the Croatian concentration and extermination camp Jasenovac.
In 1946, Stepinac was found guilty of collaborating with Italian and German occupiers and the Ustasha regime of the Independent State of Croatia, as well as of forced conversions of Orthodox Christian Serbs to Catholicism. He served the first part of his sentence in prison and the second part under house arrest. He died in 1960.
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