The refugee crisis has put a strain on already difficult relations between Balkan countries. Borders are being shut and fences built. To make matters worse, Croatian parliamentary elections are coming up this fall.
In the past few days, the acrimonious exchange of words has been reminiscent of the Yugoslav War era.
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has accused neighbors Serbia and Hungary of hatching a plot to rid themselves of refugees by forcing them to go through Croatia.
Until now, about 85,000 refugees have entered the small country, most of which were sent to the Hungarian or Slovenian border later on. It was too great a burden, according to Milanovic, who closed the border to Serbian-registered motor vehicles. The prime minister also went into a rant about Croatians not wanting to be taken for idiots and described Serbia as a “non-functioning” and “random” state, calling its leaders “flies”.
Immature, excessive, rushed
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic countered the rant by branding it “uncivilized”, “insane” and an “expression of hatred towards Serbs.”
He closed the border to Croatia. His country’s foreign ministry wrote a note of protest comparing present-day Croatia with the fascist Ustasa state of World War II, while Serbian media called the Croatian leader a “fascist” and an “idiot.”
The government in Budapest sent a note of protest to Zagreb after Croatia proposed that Serbia send some of its refugees to Hungary. Budapest stated it would normalize relations only if a new government came to power in Croatia. At the same time, the Hungarian government began to build a barbed wire fence on the border with Croatia just after having completed one on the Hungarian-Serbian border. Almost in passing, Budapest announced that it would roll out barbed wire on the border to Slovenia. The small Alpine country, which is also a member of Schengen zone of visa-free travel, stated it would send refugees without valid documents back to Croatia and that it would not tolerate the chaos.
Crisis-ridden countries are overwhelmed
Now, 20 years after the end of the Yugoslav Wars, normality has still not been established, says Aleksandar Popov from the Serbian non-governmental agency for regional policies in Novi Sad. He explains, “It only takes a spark and the tensions are back.” All the western Balkan countries are stuck in an economic crisis; unemployment runs high, especially among young people. Political relations between the former warring parties are still fragile. “Many unresolved issues lend themselves to exploitation for political purposes within the country and it happens all the time,” says Popov.
Business relations, however, have functioned normally for years. In former Yugoslavia, the southern republics were the most important market for products from Slovenia and Croatia, and even today, they still play an in important role in the economy. For example, Slovenian household appliances are popular in Croatia, while one of the largest supermarket chains in Serbia belongs to a Croatian company. Croatia annually sells around 500 million euros worth of products to Serbia.
“Businesses immediately began to calculate how much they would lose because of the border closing,” says Popov. Serbia has estimated 10 to 15 million euros in losses until now, and Croatia has also spoken of “enormous” losses. “That is why the business sector will pressure politicians and force them to act sensibly and not hurt their own citizens,” says the Serbian NGO worker.
Tensions between neighbors
Nonetheless, tensions will remain, believes Zarko Puhovski, a political scientist from Zagreb. On the one hand, the problems of the refugee crisis must be resolved – but there is no plan in sight.
On the other hand, right-wing and nationalist groups are putting the Social Democrat Milanovic under pressure in his current election campaign, explains Puhovski. The prime minister is trying to present himself as someone who is patriotic and capable of acting. That strategy always works at the expense of Serbia. “As an EU state, Croatia has greater leverage,” says Puhovski.
In the meantime, things have quieted down since the weekend. Traffic is flowing between the Serbian-Croatian borders again, while Hungary has collected the barbed war on the Slovenian border – for the time being. Yet 5,000 to 6,000 refugees cross the Croatian-Serbian border every day. Tensions are still running high on the southern edge of the EU. Croatian Prime Minister Milanovic speaks openly: “If Serbia does not change its refugee policies, we will seal off the border again – this time, hermetically.” Croatian parliamentary elections are slated for November this year.