Relations between Serbia and Croatia have cooled somewhat due to a remark by the Croatian prime minister.
By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 23/08/11
A Croatian soldier and his daughter watch a parade marking the August 5th celebrations. [Reuters]
Every year on August 5th, Croatia celebrates the so-called "Operation Storm" as Victory and Homeland Gratitude Day, commemorating the operation that broke down the Serbian armed forces in Croatia and ended the four-year war.
In Serbia, however, numerous memorial services are held to honour those killed in the operation and the public is reminded of the fact that about 200,000 Serbs were expelled from Croatia.
The exact number of Serbs killed during Operation Storm has not been determined, but the Documentation Centre Veritas, which investigates crimes against Serbs in Croatia, says that about 1,960 people were killed or are missing -- 1,205 of them civilians.
The Hague tribunal has also made its judgment regarding the operation -- generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac were sentenced to 24 and 18 years in prison, respectively, for their part in the action. The appeals process is currently under way.
Clashes between Serbian and Croatian officials started after Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor hailed Gotovina and Markac at this year's August 5th celebration, singling them out from other Croatian soldiers.
"We will never accept any reprimand over our victories. Those were the victories of democracy and freedom over Milosevic's grand Serbian policy of aggression, destruction and hatred," Kosor said at a ceremony marking the day.
Her praise of Gotovina and Markac provoked heated reactions in Serbia. President Boris Tadic said Kosor's statements did not boost good neighbourly relations.
"No election campaigns and battles for power should be based on the glorification of war criminals. That is a very irresponsible policy," Tadic said.
Zagreb replied that Croatia wanted good relations with its neighbours, but pointed out it would not allow the legitimacy of Operation Storm to be questioned.
"Apart from the fact that 'Storm' liberated the occupied regions of Croatia, the victory over the tyrant opened the way to democracy for our neighbors as well," said a news release issued by the Croatian cabinet.
Belgrade analysts believe that relations between Serbia and Croatia -- two key countries in the Western Balkans -- will not be endangered in the long term by the latest events, but also think that both governments are responsible for the fact that relations between the two peoples are not improving.
"Nothing has been done in that area, neither through education systems nor other actions," Dusan Janjic of the Forum for Ethnic Relations NGO told SETimes.
He, however, believes tensions will not deepen because it is not in the interest of either side to be identified by the EU as a state refusing to build good relations with its neighbours.
But some also see a deeper problem with Kosor's statement.
"I know Jadranka Kosor said that due to the approaching election in Croatia, but praise of persons convicted of serious crimes is a great insult to the numerous victims and their families. That is unforgivable," Savo Strbac of the Veritas centre told SETimes.
Some in Serbia have also called for the EU's reaction to the positions voiced by Zagreb. Dragan Djilas, deputy leader of the ruling Democratic Party, said that Brussels had different standards for different states.
"What would happen if our prime minister publicly thanked the Serbian generals who had fought against NATO and who were sentenced for war crimes against the Albanians? I will always warn about such double standards practiced by Europe," Djilas said.