Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia: Old Foes Blow Hot and Cold

A new visa regime reflects tentative improvements in relations between Croatia and Serbia.
By Dragutin Hedl

Serbian newspapers are now on sale in Zagreb and Croatian businessmen again walk the streets of Belgrade. The old foes may be drawing closer but memories of bitter war in the early Nineties remain fresh.


As a result, relations between the two countries "blow hot and cold", a trend reflected in their latest visa arrangement. Both nations stress that ditching the travel permits would improve business ties but they remain wary of the social implications.


In May, their respective interior ministers reached an agreement whereby Croatian and Yugoslav citizens crossing into each other's countries would be issued tourist visas. But the arrangement - to begin on June 1 - will last only three months because of fears that violence may break out along the frontier.


Although relations between the two neighbours are said to be improving, many of the citizens of both states share a mutual suspicion after years of relentless propaganda. They're fearful of what lies beyond their frontier and rarely cross it.


But government officials and businessmen from Serbia and Croatia are keen to encourage cross-border travel and have suggested their citizens are also enthusiastic about the idea.


The Croatian holiday industry hopes Yugoslavs will join the waves of western visitors expected to descend on the coastline this summer, although they admit that there could be problems.


"I am worried there'll be fighting or even worse," a senior Croatian tourism ministry official told IWPR on condition of anonymity.


The ministry, he said, had suggested tourist agencies proceed with caution and send Yugoslavs mainly to Istria, the northern peninsula bordering Slovenia. "That's where the ravages of war were not so strong and tolerance between ethnic groups is traditionally the greatest," said the official.


Mario Zmajevic, director of the Zagreb tourist association, said that at the Belgrade tourist fair in March Serbs were eager to hear of the places and people they knew in Croatia before the war. "We got the impression that half of Serbs want to spend their summer holidays in Croatia," he said.


Tourist offices in Serbia predict that, with a little marketing, some 100,000 people might holiday in Croatia in the summer. But the glossy adverts for Croatian tourist resorts are yet to reach Serbian television channels.


While tourist exchanges are limited for the moment at least, there are distinct signs of a thaw in relations between the two countries. In mid-May, for example, Serbian daily newspapers returned to Croatian newsstands after an absence of 11 years. Every copy was sold within the day. "If I'd had a hundred Politikas I'd have sold them all," said one vendor in downtown Zagreb.


Others are less impressed. "Many seem to have forgotten how this press used to spread hatred towards Croatia," said Melita Andric from Osijek. Andric and others like her believe Serbian influence in her country should be restricted.


When it comes to music, however, the influence is irresistible. Croatia's clubbers, many of whom were just small children when war tore the former Yugoslavia apart, dance the night away to Serbian turbo-folk - a mix of folk music and modern disco beats that became hugely popular in the Nineties.


The popularity of its stars has angered some Croatians. Zoran Vinkovic, mayor of the small north-east town of Djakovo, tore down posters in a motel on the Belgrade-Zagreb highway advertising a Miroslav Ilic concert. "After the Serbian aggression and the countless Croatian victims, our ears are now attacked by Serbian trash," he said.


But Dubravko Lesina, a singer at the Osijek disco OKS, has few qualms about performing turbo-folk hits - even those of Ceca Raznatovic, wife of murdered paramilitary leader Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic, whose "Tigers" unit was responsible for war crimes in the Vukovar region of Croatia. Had he lived, he would certainly have been indicted by The Hague.


Lesina originally became famous singing Croatian nationalist songs, which burst with hatred towards the Serbs, and was often hired by extreme right-wing leaders. But now he does not see a problem in singing Serbian songs.


"Croatia is now an independent state, we all have Croatian passports, our own currency, our coat of arms and flag. We have everything I fought for in my songs," said Lesina. "Times have changed and now I sing what the audience wants to hear."


Clearly, for some Croats, pragmatism outweighs nationalist passions in relations with their old enemy.


Dragutin Hedl is an independent Croatian journalist