Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic and Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic welcomed Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic on February 12, despite loud protests by two groups of about 400 people in Zagreb’s central Ban Jelacic Square.
Vucic’s visit to Croatia caused some controversy, mainly because of his stance during the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s when he was a young leader within the far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS). The SRS openly promoted the idea of so-called ‘Greater Serbia’ to include parts of Croatian territory as well as the ethnic cleansing of Croatian populated areas of Serbia. Vucic left the SRS and its principles behind in 2008, when he formed the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) whose main goal is EU integration.
Since then he has often acknowledged that he made mistakes in the past, but his past has not been forgotten in Croatia. Thus the protesters see the invitation to Vucic as a betrayal by Croatia’s president.
Still, there were more police than protesters in downtown Zagreb on February 12, and most of those who turned out were widows and veterans of the war between Serbia and Croatia. The group of about 400 tried to reach the Croatian government building, but police stopped them some 200m from the entrance, regional broadcaster N1 reported.
Their main message was the old saying “a wolf can change his hair but can’t change his temper”, but instead of using the word “wolf” which in Serbian is “vuk” they put “Vucic”, which translates as “little wolf”.
Alongside this group, a significantly smaller one consisting of about 20 people from the far-right Autochthonous Croatian Party of Right also protested against Vucic’s visit to Zagreb. They gathered in front of the building of the Serbian National Council in Zagreb and marched towards the Serbian embassy until being stopped by police.
Police were deployed to guard Serbian flags flying throughout the country to prevent damage.
Despite the tensions, the first day of Vucic’s two-day visit to Zagreb was largely calm.
Well aware of what was going on the streets around them, the two presidents appeared in front of journalists to talk about the future.
“We have done a good job and I believe that the future is something about which we don’t have opposite interests in any single field… Because of the generations that are coming we have to look into the future and not behave as we did in the past,” Vucic said, adding that Serbia wants to build the best possible relations with Croatia because they are crucial for the stability of the entire region, reads the statement posted on his official website.
Kitarovic also called for a better future for the good of the region. “Our obligation is to find connecting points. We have to solve what separates us but also to find path to future which will ensure safety and welfare to Croatian and Serbian people, to the both countries. What specially connects us is joint responsibility for future of Southeastern Europe,” Kitarovic said at the joint press conference with Vucic, reads her cabinet statement.
She underlined that the two presidents found common ground on some issues, including the need to find missing people from the war, as well as improving the positions of the Croatian minority in Serbia and the Serbian minority in Croatia. According to Kitarovic, the question of the border between the two countries was touched upon, and she and Vucic agreed to keep talking about it at the bilateral level for the next two years. If this does not result in a solution, they will refer the matter to an international tribunal.
However, according to Vucic, past differences remained and the two presidents were unable to find common ground on the region’s recent history.
“If nothing else, we at least got to understand that the other side has a completely different stance about things and events,” Vucic said.
He handed Kitarovic documents (birth, death and marriage certificates) from the Croatian town Dvor na Uni, which were taken to Serbia during the Operation Storm, the decisive battle between the two countries.
Vucic thanked the Croatian president for taking the brave step of inviting him to visit at a moment when the two countries’ relations are not going “in an upward line”, again because of the past.
Tensions periodically erupt between the neighbouring countries, most recently over a Serbian-Jewish exhibition about the Croatian Jasenovac concentration camp from WWII at the United Nations headquarters in New York, called "Jasenovac - the Right Not to Forget". While Croatia accused Serbia of abusing Jasenovac’s victims for propaganda purposes and presenting fake data at the exhibition, Serbia said that Zagreb denies the past and its victims.
During the visit to Zagreb, Vucic also met Plenkovic. The two discussed open issues, and agreed to work on the further improvement of bilateral relations of the two countries and the two nations.
Vucic used the visit to invite Croatian construction companies to come to Serbia, while Kitarovic called for Serbian business people to invest in Croatia. The two presidents’ meeting may indeed bring some concrete results for business ties between their countries as the president of the Croatian Chamber of Commerce Luka Burilovic announced the opening of a branch in Belgrade after he met Vucic and Kitarovic in Zagreb.
“Serbia is an important partner, more than 200 Croatian companies operate there. Aiming to help them, we are opening an office of the Croatian Chamber of Commerce in Belgrade next month,” Burolivic said, N1 reported.
On the first day of the visit, Vucic and Kitarovic jointly met participants of the Serb National Council Academy and attended the presentation of the Future of Serbs in Croatia project at the Serbian Orthodox Church's Metropolitanate of Zagreb and Ljubljana.
On the second day of the visit, February 13, Vucic will on visit the town of Vrginmost and later in the day will deliver a speech at an event organised by the Serb National Council in Zagreb.