Balkan leaders meet to try to improve relations

AP News
Posted: Apr 12, 2016 10:14 AM

MOSTAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — The leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia promised Tuesday to try to improve their relations, recently strained by harsh words exchanged over war crimes committed during conflicts in the 1990s and Croatia's veto on Serbia's EU talks.

At the opening of a trade fair in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar, the leaders of the three ex-Yugoslav states spoke of strengthening economic ties and their joint future in the EU, of which Croatia is already a member. They said they had constructive bilateral talks that they intend to intensify.

The three fought brutal wars two decades ago after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Crimes committed during those wars were tried by the U.N. war crimes tribunal and the sides perceive the verdicts differently.

The court recently sentenced Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to 40 years for crimes including genocide against Muslim Bosniaks and Croats, committed during his campaign of creating a territory within Bosnia exclusively for Serbs.

Serbia's prime minister Aleksandar Vucic angered Muslim Bosniaks afterward by saying nobody should use the verdict to try to dismantle the Serb republic within Bosnia. They saw this as defending Karadzic's genocidal legacy.

Muslim Bosniak leader Bakir Izetbegovic then angered the Serbs by saying he may renew a lawsuit against Serbia for aggression at the World Court.

On Tuesday leaders of the two countries called for understanding of each other's positions about the past and said those should not poison their future relations which — according to Vucic — are the backbone of Balkan peace.

"Bosniaks should try walking in Serb shoes and Serbs should try walking in Bosniak shoes, in order to understand each other better," Vucic said.

Everybody should remember their victims, said Izetbegovic, but "this should not be a reason to complain, create problems, strain relations," he said.

Relations between Serbia and Croatia also cooled recently after Croatia vetoed the start of EU talks with Serbia about judicial and human rights reforms — a key chapter in the process of EU accession.

Croatia insisted Belgrade should first improve the status of the Croatian minority in Serbia, cooperate better with the U.N. war crimes tribunal and change its criminal law so it stops claiming the jurisdiction of Serbian courts over war crimes committed outside of its national borders.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic met with Vucic for 10 minutes in Mostar and said afterward she "wouldn't say" the relations between the two countries were tense.

"There is a rhetorical confrontation," she said. "It is important to understand how to arrange a country so it fits the majority but also for minorities to feel safe there."