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

Serbia: Polo Riots Spark Diplomatic Tensions

Rift between Belgrade and Zagreb averted after nationalist thugs ran amok following a highly-charged water polo match.
By Milanka Saponja-Hadzic

Belgrade has been working hard to prevent a downturn in relations with Zagreb following the bloody riots that followed Serbia-Montenegro’s water polo victory over Croatia last week.


Nationalist hooligans from both sides went on the rampage in several towns following the European Championship final in Kranj, Slovenia, on June 15. The trouble soon spread across the region, with incidents in Novi Sad and Belgrade, which included a march on the Croatian embassy.


But the riots – which came only five days after Croatia temporarily suspended its visa regime for citizens of Serbia-Montenegro – do not appear to have done severe damage to bilateral relations, with Belgrade officials moving quickly to diffuse tensions.


In Kranj, celebrations following Serbia-Montenegro’s late winner against Croatia turned to terror when disgruntled Croatian fans began ripping up their seats and attacking the police.


Members of both teams, bystanders and journalists were injured in the clashes with Croatian fans, 14 of whom were later arrested and charged by Slovenian police.


Reacting to these events, around a thousand Serbia-Montenegro supporters, celebrating the victory in the centre of Belgrade, marched to the Croatian embassy, where they removed its national flag and replaced it with a Serbian banner, chanting "Ustashas, Ustashas" – a prejorative term for Croats.


As soon as news of the incident reached Zagreb, Croatian foreign minister Tonino Picula cancelled a scheduled visit to the Montenegrin capital Podgorica on June 16 and 17.


That same night, Serbia's ambassador to Zagreb Milan Simurdic was summoned to the Croatian foreign ministry to receive a strongly-worded protest note.


"Serbia and Montenegro did not react adequately and in a timely fashion to protect the Croatian embassy, which is the duty of any country," the ambassador was told.


Croatian prime minister Ivica Racan described the attack on the embassy as "alarming", adding, "The democratically elected authorities in Belgrade should have taken care of that."


But President Stjepan Mesic tried to diffuse the growing diplomatic tension by saying, "Whenever there's an incident, both sides are to blame... one incident begets another."


Belgrade pulled no punches in its response to the Croatian embassy incident.


Serbia-Montenegro foreign minister Goran Svilanovic told the media that such an event "should not have happened but will not happen again", adding that it must not wipe out three years of hard work on both sides to improve relations.


Svilanovic went on to criticise the police for not cracking down harshly on the rioters in front of the embassy. However, an IWPR source at the Serbian interior ministry said officers decided against strong-arm tactics, as this could have inflamed the situation further.


Immediately after the riots, Belgrade's mayor Radmila Hrustanovic sent a written apology to the Croatian embassy, which read, "For the umpteenth time we have seen a sports victory turned into a defeat by those without dignity, decency and self-respect."


It was announced that similar rallies and sports celebrations may be banned to prevent a repeat of the incident.


Ordinary people across the region expressed their shock at the events in Kranj, and the violence that erupted in Belgrade and Novi Sad, where nationalist youths fought running battles with police, which left more than 40 people injured.


"That’s no way to join Europe!" said Kiki from Zagreb, in a reference to Croatia and Serbia’s ambition to become part of the European Union.


Tom from Zadar agreed, telling IWPR, "There's been enough hatred between our countries. This is only sport - you win some, you lose some, and you hope to triumph more often that you fail. Let's put a end to such primitive behaviour and punish it severely."


Following the easing of tensions over the incidents in Karnj, Novi Sad and Belgrade, efforts by


Serbia-Montenegro and Croatia to normalise relations following their conflict in the early Nineties are expected to continue.


Well-known Croatian economist Drazen Kalogjera told IWPR, "It can cast a shadow, but in the long term, it will not jeopardise the improvement in economic relations between the two countries."


Only five days before the water polo match, Zagreb suspended entry visa requirements for citizens of Serbia and Montenegro for a test period of six months – a move hailed by both countries as a major advance in the economic and diplomatic fields.


War crimes, and the return of displaced peoples, are also high on the agenda.


The recent arrest of indicted war crimes suspect Veselin Sljivancanin, a former Yugoslav army colonel suspected of involvement in the deaths of around 200 Croatian civilians near Vukovar, was viewed as a significant step forward.


Mesic and Racan described the arrest of a man still regarded as a hero by many Serbs as a "brave act" on the part of the Belgrade authorities.


After war crimes, the issue of the repatriation of displaced Croatian Serbs living in Serbia is the most delicate problem in relations between the two countries.


Zagreb has recently introduced a number of ways to ease this process, and on June 12, Racan called on the refugees to "take the opportunity given to them through government measures aimed at securing their right to a home".


Milanka Saponja-Hadzic and Drago Hedl are IWPR contributors in Belgrade and Osijek respectively.