Old ghosts stalk Croatia’s Stalingrad
As Croatia prepares to join the EU, ethnic divisions linger more than two decades after the bitter war with Serbia, and a war of words rages in the border town of Vukovar
Zeljko Sabo, the conciliatory mayor of Vukovar, who has just been re-elected, is a figure who infuriates nationalists. “The citizens of Vukovar decided by a majority that they want a city of peace and tolerance, not a city of divisions . . . I will manage the city in favour of all its citizens,” Sabo said recently.
The push to improve ethnic relations in Vukovar, and to strengthen ties with Serbia, has support from Croatia’s president, Ivo Josipovic. “The EU is primarily for us a peace project,” he tells The Irish Times.
Josipovic was with the then Serbian president, Boris Tadic, in Vukovar almost three years ago, when he became the first Serb leader to apologise for the massacre.
Tadic has since been ousted by the former radical nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, who, just before taking power, said Vukovar was “a Serb city and Croats have nothing to go back to there”.
But Josipovic denies suggestions of a chill in relations between Zagreb and Belgrade. “We have good co-operation on a wide range of areas. And there has been no deterioration with Nikolic. Some of his statements are not helpful, but I think we can overcome this.”
Croatia has many obstacles to overcome as it finally joins the EU, from a stagnant economy and rising unemployment to often tricky ties with its neighbours.
But there is a feeling, in rebuilt Vukovar and elsewhere, that the future cannot be as bad as the recent past, and that the ethnic strife that killed Yugoslavia will not be allowed to infect the EU.
“No one expects miracles on July 1st. We know that Europe has plenty of its own problems now,” says Marko Kovacevic, a Vukovar notary, walking beside the Danube during his lunch break. “Our region is much poorer than Zagreb or the coast, and young people are leaving. But they go because unemployment is high, not because of problems between Croats and Serbs.”
Kovacevic’s family lost their house and an apartment when Serbs occupied Vukovar. His grandfather was killed and dumped in a mass grave. It is not an uncommon story here.
“It’s much harder for the older people to move on, because they really suffered and fought in the war. But I have Serb friends, and we all have to move forward. Life goes on,” Kovacevic saxys, while behind him the Danube flows on between its Croatian and Serbian banks. “A Serb of my age would tell a different story. He would have had his own suffering. Every page has two sides.”