Peščanik: Serbia and Croatia are two closely related states – historically, culturally and economically – yet analysts argue, and you yourself have said, that their political relationship has entered a blind alley, that things are not at all good between them. What is the main problem besetting Croatian-Serbian relations today?

Mesic: The primary problem derives from the recent war and its aftermath, brought about by the refusal on the part of the Miloševic regime to agree to a new political compact to replace the model of the federation crafted by Tito, which no one liked. We were offering a confederation for a period of 3-5 years, but Miloševic rejected this because he disliked both federal and confederal arrangements. He opted instead for a war aimed at enlarging Serbia’s borders. Using the JNA garrisons, he aided Serb insurrections in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which ended we know how. The war was brief in Slovenia, bloody in Croatia, and most brutal in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It finally ended in Kosovo. Following the intervention by the NATO alliance, Serbia was unable to restore its presence in Kosovo and proved equally unwilling to conduct negotiations, as is shown by its proposed formula of ‘more than autonomy and less than independence’. Since the negotiations assisted by the international community made no advance, Kosovo declared itself an independent state. This was a new reality which we recognised, and it was this act that led to a new freeze in Croatian-Serbian relations.

There had been a thaw following the war, because we said that the crimes and their perpetrators should be established regardless of who had committed them and on whose behalf: that the crimes should be individualised. It was precisely our policy to individualise responsibility and to rely on the Hague tribunal for this that led to a thaw in our relations with Serbia. But our recognition of Kosovo led to a new freeze – Serbia even recalled its ambassador from Zagreb. But he then returned, and I can only say that our relations are now improving, despite the fact of the other side once again re-igniting the Bosnian question – or, to be more precise, that of the Bosnian Serb entity.

The question of Bosnia-Herzegovina

This has been a permanent stumbling block. The Dayton agreement ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it failed to create a functioning state. It created two administrative entities, one for the Bosniaks and Croats and one for the Serbs. Prior to the war, 48 percent of the population living in the area of what is now Republika Srpska [RS] was made up of Croats and Bosniaks. This territory was ‘cleansed’ during the war, as a result of which only around 8 percent of the population there now is Bosniak, and there are only some 10,000 Croats left. If you bear in mind that there were once 220,000 Croats living in this area, then you can see what happened there. The Dayton agreement specified that relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, i.e. in its entities, should be based on the 1991 census. To accept a new census as the basis would legitimise ethnic cleansing. This, then, is the problem confronting Bosnia-Herzegovina today. Those who insist on implementation of the Dayton agreement are surely bound to facilitate the return of all displaced peoples, meaning Serbs to the Federation, Croats and Bosniaks to RS. Even if this cannot be readily accomplished, relations should nevertheless be based on the 1991 census, which if implemented would ensure the desired return. The B-H political elite finds it hard to accept this. The policy conducted by former critic of the Miloševic regime and now RS prime minister Milorad Dodik presents a special problem in this regard.

The trouble is Dodik’s public insistence that he does not recognise Bosnia-Herzegovina, that B-&H is not a given fact, and that for him only RS exists, albeit created by people who today either sit in The Hague or are on the way to it – those who tried to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is clear that the Serbian government must have known what was happening in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and also that Europe and the world did nothing while Miloševic was destroying Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today Milorad Dodik is not using guns and tanks, he is not creating new Srebrenicas, but he is conducting the same policy that was once pursued by Slobodan Miloševic. Dodik is actively seeking to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina, and threatens to hold a referendum that would de facto end its existence. For if RS were to separate, then this would be followed by the so-called Croat republic of Herzeg-Bosna, which has been suspended and which was likewise destroying Bosnia-Herzegovina. That part of Herzegovina would then join Croatia. There would remain a small Islamic state surrounded by enemies.

There are those in Belgrade who simply do not understand this. It is not of the essence that it would be an Islamic state – what matters is that all those dissatisfied with the break-up of Bosnia-Herzegovina would end up there. Such a state could exist only with the support of fundamentalist Islamic regimes, which would seek something in return for their help. It would become a factor of instability in that it would provide a space for the formation of terrorist camps for maybe fifty or seventy years – the fundamentalists would simply use this territory for their activity. Yet the world remains silent, as does Europe.

Europe should halt the trend being forced by Milorad Dodik, a man who has welcomed home a war criminal (Biljana Plavšic] responsible among other things also for Srebrenica, treating her in Serb parlance like a Joan of Arc, i.e. with full honours. What I expect of official Belgrade is to take the same step which I took when I told the B-H Croats that their state was Bosnia-Herzegovina and their capital city Sarajevo; when I invited them to forge their policy within Bosnia-Herzegovina. Belgrade has failed to send this message to the B-H Serbs. No one there has told the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina that Bosnia is their country and Sarajevo their capital city; that they should forge their policy in Sarajevo in cooperation with the other two peoples. Rather than giving them false hopes. The remaking of this part of Europe is over – those who wish to change it now could accomplish this only by means of war.

National myths verus political reality

All peoples have the right to harbour their particular myths. Thus, for example, the Croats have the myth that King Tomislav was crowned on the Field of Duvno [in Herzegovina] with a gold crown sent by the Pope. It is one of our national myths, but no significant political force in Croatia is demanding today that part of Bosnia-Herzegovina should be joined to Croatia for this reason. We know and take it as a myth. Other countries too have their myths – Slovenia has the myth of King Samo – but what we are talking are contemporary political realities. Following Miloševic’s fall, Serbia should have restored Kosovo’s political autonomy, strengthened additionally in a way that would be acceptable to the Kosovo Albanians after their terrible experience with Miloševic. It was necessary, in other words, to seek a dialogue with the national majority in Kosovo. But a policy premised on banning all communication between the Kosovo Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians, and on pressing them not to vote in any of the elections, is a policy that has led to a blind alley from which they do not know how to extricate themselves. I talked to a number of municipal leaders in the Serb enclaves at the time of the proclamation of Kosovo’s independence, who told me that they wished to participate in the elaboration of the regulations made in Kosovo, but that Belgrade would not allow it. Belgrade likes to maintain this high level of tension, seeking to win elections on the back of the problems of Kosovo and the Kosovo Serbs. The tale that one could join the north of Mitrovica to Serbia is in the last instance a practical problem, given that the majority of Kosovo Serbs do not live there. Would this solve the problem of the Kosovo Serbs? Even if it could be done, Serbia would acquire the problem of of Medveda, Preševo and Bujanovac [majority-Albanian municipalities in southern Serbia]: would they wish to remain in Serbia, or would they seek to join Kosovo? To play around with borders is a grave and risky problem – borders are as a rule changed only through war.

It is good that Serbia has opted for a juridical solution of the Kosovo problem. Serbia does not have to recognise Kosovo, of course, citing historical and other reasons. That’s all fine. But one should recognise also the fact that Kosovo has established its own government which the world has recognised. This is why it is not good, if we in this region are to achieve good and solid relations, for Serbia to refuse to attend an event simply because an invitation has been extended also to a Kosovo representative. We in the region must accept facts, that the roads lead as before, that the rivers flow as before, that the railway lines run as before – this we must accept. West Germany never recognised East Germany, but it also said that East Germany would never be a foreign land for them, and they kept to this policy. They never exchanged ambassadors, yet Western Germany had its representative in Eastern Germany, through which the two countries could communicate. Despite the Berlin Wall and many other factors that hampered their cooperation, communication carried on. The same is true here: one must communicate for the sake of the region, and leave the political problems to be sorted out separately.

The Bosnian problem

In 2000 we did away with Tudjmanism for good, we said goodbye to a policy that sought its fulfilment among the Croat people outside Croatia’s borders. We have managed to break with this in favour of the well-being of our nation, of the people and citizens who live within the Croatian borders. It was not easy for me to say at a time of great nationalist euphoria that I wished to be the president of all citizens of the Republic of Croatia. This demanded some courage, and the majority of the citizens accepted this. During the war the Serbs blamed the Croats and the Bosniaks, the Croats the Serbs and the Bosniaks, and the Bosniaks the Serbs and the Croats. Why? The people who fought and killed each other were not the ones who caused the war – it was caused by people wishing to realise their imperial dreams. Because the war was very dirty and brutal, it left behind great hatred between the national communities. It was necessary to remove that hatred, and my policy was: let’s try those who knew about the crimes, but did nothing to prevent them; those who ordered the crimes to be committed. .

But how can you individualise responsibility when, after The Hague has found someone guilty of war crimes, the politicians welcome that war criminal with all honours? What kind of policy is that? It only complicates the situation. One must help the international representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina to remove those who do not recognise the country. And once we have got rid of them, new political elites will come forward. If Bosnia’s politicians cannot find a way out, and given that Europe does not recognise border alterations, then all those who advocate border changes should be removed from active politics. They should be removed from the game. Croatia, and Serbia too, used to contribute to the [prewar] Fund for the Underdeveloped Republics and Provinces, and now we have a discussion in Bosnia-Herzegovina about whose property that investment is. The Serb entity demands that everything located on its territory should be proclaimed the entity’s property. But entity property can only be property which the entity itself has created, not the property of the common state. The fact is that we in Croatia did not pay in for a Republika Srpska, a Croat Republic of Herzeg-Bosna, or a Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our citizens deprived themselves and their families by donating money to a fund that was for Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is, therefore, the property of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is clear that if this property were to be divided between the two entities, this would spell the end of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Is it possible to have a state without any property of its own? Though it is clear that this would lead to Bosnia’s dissolution, the Bosnian political elite’s sole aim – and not only Dodik’s, for there are movers also on the other side – is to gain control of some of the loot. Look, Milorad Dodik wants a third entity to be established, because it would lead to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s final break-up. And the wise men, the movers on the other side, could not wait to welcome this.

Peščanik: But then again, Dodik has said that it is your fault, because you have neglected the Bosnian Croats.

Mesic: Yes, but his claim has nothing to do with reality. We support Croats living outside Croatia, but we support above all Bosnia-Herzegovina, because it is the guarantee of a peaceful development equally of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and, of course, Bosnia-Herzegovina itself. If the authorities in Belgrade continue to support those who still pine for a great imperial Serbia, then this can only make the situation worse. As for Milorad Dodik, he will exit from history; the only question is how much harm he will do before that.

The problem of the Croatian Catholic Church

Croatia is a secular state: our constitution says that no religious symbols may be displayed in public rooms. The Catholic Church then simplifies this by saying that Stipe wants to eject all crosses. But Stipe doesn’t want to eject any crosses. Being the country’s president, he only demands that public rooms should not contain religious symbols, any religious symbols. For otherwise, to take an example, a Muslim commander in the Croatian army would be able to display also his own, Muslim symbols. Or Orthodox ones if he were of the Orthodox faith, Jewish ones if he were a Jew, etc. This cannot happen, though everything can be easily solved. I told the same thing to the Pope – look, we have imams in the barracks, chapels which every religious group can establish for its needs. If some cleric expects more people to attend his service, he can ask his commanding officer to provide him with a bigger room, such as the dining room or some other large space. He would take his symbols there, conduct the service in their presence, and then return them to the chapel. In other words, no one is denied the right to have his religious symbols displayed at a religious event. But not in rooms used also by those who have their own, different ones. And one must remember that we have agnostics, that we have atheists.

The Catholic Church and the question of anti-fascism

Our constitution is clear on this subject. As I told the Pope, I was elected to implement and guard the Croatian constitution. And now the church leaders blame me for all kinds of problems. On the subject of anti-fascism, Cardinal Bozanic cannot visit the greatest execution site in our country, Jasenovac, but stop half way, go home without visiting the ossuary, the place where the Jasenovac victims are buried, killed only for being of a different faith or ethnicity. They say that he went to Jasenovac. Yes, he did, but he went home without visiting the place where one should bow to the victims. There is now an attempt to create a myth about Communist crimes. Some people forget that for ten days after Germany’s capitulation bloody battles continued to be fought against the local quislings, in which 1,500 partisans were killed and 3,500 wounded. If the quislings had capitulated at the same time as Germany, these people would have lived. Why did these young men and women have to die? There is no doubt that there was also revenge, but one cannot say that all those who died as a result of it were innocent. They involved 1,500 guards from Jasenovac, Pavelic’s bodyguard formation, and Rafael Boban’s battalion, notorious for its savage conduct in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Its members killed all, without distinction. The biggest killings in the Croatian Drava valley were done by Boban’s men, though there were no Serbs living there.

What happened afterwards? So there was revenge. I say that the people responsible for it should have been tried, because it was wrong to take revenge. But as I read in one of Djilas’s books, around 40,000 quislings did not lay down their arms at the end of the war, but continued to fight. They carried on until 1951 in Croatia, 1955 in Serbia, targeting the new government officials and robbing the shops. The OZN, the Public Safety Department, was formed precisely to suppress this rebellion. Now these quislings are presented as peaceful citizens who were killed by bloodthirsty Communists.

When I came to Belgrade I said that I wished to apologise to all those who have suffered at Croat hands, to all those who were victims of crimes committed in the Croat name. Yet I am constantly being asked to apologise yet again. But I have already done so. As an individual I have no reason to apologise to anyone – my whole family joined the partisans, my father and five uncles, and my wife’s whole family was killed in Jasenovac. I don’t feel that I myself need to apologise to anyone. But as Croatian president I must do so, because members of the Croatian nation committed crimes for which I must express regret. This is why it is important to go to Jasenovac, to Jadovno, and to other places of mass execution, where Serbs were killed only because they were Serbs. In my view, there is not sufficient courage in Serbia to say which was the right and which the wrong side in the Second World War. It is not necessary to dwell on what made a given individual join one or the other side, but we cannot obliterate the difference between the two ideologies, try to make peace between fascism and anti-fascism. Up to a certain point the Chetniks may have fought against the occupiers, but quite soon they became their allies. The Belgrade-Athens railway was the most secure line, thanks to the Chetniks guarding it. In Croatia, however, there was no secure railway line – we blew them all up.

Interview was taken by Ivan Kuzminović.

Radio B92, Pescanik, 04.12.2009.

Translated by Bosnian Institute, 07.01.2010.

Pešč, 09.01.2010.