At a meeting in the EU Council on April 7, the Croatian delegate refused to endorse the European Commission’s opinion that Serbia is ready to open talks on Chapter 23 of the accession book, which deals with judiciary and human rights.
According to the EU’s “fundamentals first” enlargement strategy, this is one of the “superchapters” that is crucial to the whole process. Serbia had hoped it would be opened by June, paving the way for other chapters. This is now likely to be delayed.
Alone among the 28 member states, Croatia cited doubts on Serbia’s commitment to the rule of law, stopping the preparations for the start of accession talks. Croatia’s complaints include three issues: the treatment of the Croatian minority in Serbia, Serbian cooperation with the UN war crimes court in The Hague (the ICTY), and jurisdiction of Serbian courts over war crimes committed in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.
Although Croatia claims that these issues are related to core European values, Serbia (and most EU members) sees them as Croatia’s attempt to extort concessions on bilateral matters.
Croatia wants guaranteed parliamentary seats for representatives of ethnic Croats, who comprise less than 1 percent of Serbia’s overall population.
Apart from a relatively minor problem of Serbia’s reluctance to arrest and deliver three people charged with contempt of court, there are no outstanding issues between Serbia and the ICTY.
When it comes to Serbia’s self-proclaimed jurisdiction over war crimes, Croatia is worried that the Belgrade special court, which has so far mostly tried Serbs for war crimes against other ethnic groups, could in future also indict Croats for crimes against Serbs.
Besides Serbia, 11 EU member states also have similar laws allowing their courts to prosecute crimes against humanity no matter where they occurred.
Predictably, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic was furious. “We will not tolerate blackmail, and won’t beg and crawl,” he told supporters at a rally in the city of Novi Sad in northern Serbia.
The Croatian move caught him at a bad time - at the height of his campaign for the 24 April parliamentary election. The prospect of EU membership, still popular among many Serbs, tops his agenda and any delay on the road to Brussels, whatever the cause, could harm him in the polls.
But in reality, there is not much he can do, since every step in the enlargement process requires unanimity in the EU Council.
Croatia responded to Vucic by claiming that it was only trying to help Serbia to fully prepare for membership. “All that Serbia needs to do is to fulfil our demands, which are entirely in accordance with basic EU standards,” Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic said at a press conference on Monday. “Don’t call it blockade, we’re not putting up roadblocks on Serbia’s path.” Her choice of words touched some nerves, since the word “roadblock” could be seen as an allusion to the early stages of the war in Croatia, when Belgrade-backed ethnic Serbian rebels built multiple roadblocks in order to cut communications between Croatian towns.
Serbo-Croat relations, already strained by the increasingly nationalist rhetoric of the newly formed right-wing government in Zagreb, have now reached their lowest point in years.
Last week, the representatives of Jewish and Serbian communities in Croatia announced that they would boycott the annual commemoration of the Jasenovac concentration camp, where tens of thousands of their kin were killed during World War Two.
They did this in protest over attempts by some Croatian government members to rehabilitate the pro-Nazi Ustasha movement, whose members operated the camp.
Ethnic Serbs in Croatia complain that since the new government was formed, they have been subjected to increasing threats and harassment, which is often tolerated, and sometimes even encouraged by the country’s top officials. Serbia has protested, to not much avail.
Croatia flexes it muscles
Meanwhile, Croatia has found itself under increasing pressure from Brussels and several member states to lift the block and allow Serbia to open Chapter 23.
Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner in charge of enlargement, had a quiet word with top Croatian officials last weekend.
Austria and Hungary, among others, also publicly appealed to Zagreb to try to solve its problems with Belgrade through bilateral talks, or in later stages of the accession negotiations.
This is because Serbia is seen by many as a key player in the Western Balkans, and if its membership talks stall, regional stability could suffer.
So far, however, Croatia is not budging, and its leaders unanimously insist that their demands are met in full before they let Serbia make any further progress.
There is a slight chance that Vucic and Grabar Kitarovic could find a sliver of common ground at a trilateral meeting with Bosnian president Bakir Izetbegovic in Mostar on Tuesday.
But it's a long shot and the mood in Belgrade is gloomy.
“Even if the Croats drop their demands in a week or two, we’ll almost certainly miss the June date for chapter opening,” a high-ranking Serbian diplomat closely involved with the EU negotiations told EUobserver.
He said that Belgrade expected Croatia to flex its EU muscles during the enlargement negotiations, but it was surprised that this occurred already at such an early stage of the process, which, even in the best-case scenario, would take several years to conclude.
“They’re trying to push us off the field before the game even begins,” the diplomat said. “I shudder to think what they’ll do once we really start playing.”
Originally published on the EUobserver.