Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Balkans

Refugees fleeing war in the Middle East have stumbled into older enmities between Croatia and Serbia.

TOVARNIK, CROATIA - SEPTEMBER 23:  Migrants stand in line at Tovarnik station as they wait to board a train heading to Zagred as more migrants arrive from the Serbian border on September 23, 2015 in Tovarnik, Croatia. Croatia has built a refugee camp to control the transit of migrants to Hungary with a capacity of 4,000 people. EU leaders attended an extraordinary summit today in Brussels in an attempt to resolve the ongoing crisis. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
TOVARNIK, CROATIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Migrants stand in line at Tovarnik station as they wait to board a train heading to Zagred as more migrants arrive from the Serbian border on September 23, 2015 in Tovarnik, Croatia. Croatia has built a refugee camp to control the transit of migrants to Hungary with a capacity of 4,000 people. EU leaders attended an extraordinary summit today in Brussels in an attempt to resolve the ongoing crisis. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

TOVARNIK, Croatia — On a chilly evening in late September, Nidal, a 30-year-old from Damascus, sat by a campfire near the train tracks to keep warm as he contemplated his next move. He had spent four months on the road before reaching this hamlet on Croatia’s border with Serbia: He walked across Turkey, rode in an overfilled rubber dinghy bound for Greece, scrambled on foot across the border from Macedonia to Serbia, and finally was deposited by a Serbian bus in a maze of cornfields in northwestern Serbia before he walked another six miles to reach Tovarnik. And this is where he was waiting by the campfire for a train with a destination unknown to him.

Nidal left his home this summer to seek the safety of Europe and an escape from the four years of war for which there is little end in sight. But by the time he reached Tovarnik, he found himself caught in the middle of an even older conflict.

Due to the unfolding refugee crisis that is playing out across the Balkans, Croatia-Serbia relations have reached an all-time low since the 1991-1995 war the two countries fought during the collapse of Yugoslavia. The governments in Belgrade and Zagreb have traded insults — sometimes reaching back to pre-World War I tensions — and have closed their borders to people seeking entry and to each other. Desperate asylum-seekers who want no part of the Balkan tensions, meanwhile, are on the losing end of the spat.

Police on the ground say that information and coordination between the two countries is lacking and that migrants are suffering as a result. “It would be better if we did not pass the problem between one another,” said Croatian special police officer Ivan Horvat, who was dispatched to watch over the situation. “There is so little coordination.”

Refugees and migrants were left stranded in the no man’s land between Sid in Serbia and Tovarnik in Croatia, some sleeping in a cemetery. Blankets, sleeping pads, and other necessary materials were scarce, but trash from discarded food, water bottles, and other detritus were piling up.

In the local media, however, the focus is on the neighbors, not the needy. “Croatians are raping us and the EU supports it” ran a headline last week in one of the most widely distributed tabloids in Serbia. On Sept. 24, Serbian newspapers called Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic a “crazy man leading Croatia to war,” an “idiot,” and the leader of an “Ustashe gang,” referring to the World War II-era Croatian Nazi puppet state. Serbia’s foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, said that “war [had] started in the past” due to similar disputes and added: “If Croatia wants conflict, there is no problem.” In a statement, his ministry said that the border closure “can only be compared with measures taken in the past, during the fascist Independent Croatia.”

Croatia’s media is more measured, but Milanovic fired back saying that Serbia’s behavior is “not normal” and that Croatia would not let Serbia “make fools of us.”

“Until I see the Budapest-Belgrade axis stop burdening Croatia with refugees, I will remain convinced that they are doing something behind our back,” Milanovic said on Sept. 24.

One of the effects of the renewed tension has been a tit-for-tat exchange that has escalated into what looks like a trade war. On Sept. 18, in an attempt to force Serbia to stop busing thousands of people seeking refuge to the Croatian border, Croatia closed all of its land borders with Serbia to trucks with Serbian registration. In response, five days later, Serbia banned cargo traffic from Croatia, resulting in lines miles long on both sides. In retaliation, Zagreb blocked entry to all vehicles with Serbian license plates. Belgrade in turn accused Croatia, an EU member, of violating the EU’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Belgrade. These bans did nothing to stem the flow of migrants but were intended to pressure Serbia to stop busing people to the border.

“I would never believe that [the] refugee crisis would at this point end up in this unofficial customs war of Croatia and Serbia,” said Dan Sunter, an analyst and the editor of Balkan Intelligence, a newsletter on the region. “This kind of political and diplomatic atmosphere was not existent since the conflict of the 1990s. The current political rhetoric is damaging all that has been done in the past 15 years, and that is bad for everyone in the region.”

Croatia, which joined the European Union in 2013, and Serbia, which aspires to join the 28-member union, have maintained cool relations but have slowly and steadily improved.

Anita Mitic, a Belgrade-based activist for regional reconciliation, says that how quickly things turned sour — and personal — between the prime ministers of Croatia and Serbia shows that it does not take much to lay bare the ugly resentments and mutual disrespect felt on both sides of the border. “Instead of helping refugees, since both Serbs and Croats were in the same situation not long ago, politicians are collecting cheap points,” she said. “They are stoking hatred among ordinary people and reopening old wounds that take time to heal. This incident has showed that there is no real and honest progress in reconciliation.”

Serbia, which last year ran Europe’s largest budget deficit, has struggled to cope with the 200,000 migrants passing through its borders since the beginning of the year. In late August, it began allowing buses to drive people straight from its southern border with Macedonia north to Hungary, a member of the EU and closer to Germany and Austria, the final destinations of many.

Croatia was quick to welcome refugees. The government in Zagreb sent dispatch teams to remove landmines left along nearly four miles of the border from the 1990s war. People set up groups on Facebook to share maps of mined areas. The mayor of Zagreb announced that everyone should consider hosting a migrant at home. But after one day the country became overwhelmed and has since been trying to get Serbia to redirect the flow of people back to Hungary and also to Romania.

But even in its hospitality, Croatia has stayed competitive with its neighbor. “When we get migrants, we send them to the border, not to the cornfields,” Milanovic said at a press conference on Sept. 24. “They won’t sleep in graveyards like they had to in Serbia.” The prime minister also said that while Croatia can handle 4,000 to 5,000 people each day, it was reaching a breaking point. (Croatia says some 88,500 people have passed through the country since Hungary closed its border with Serbia on Sept. 15.)

But the refugee crisis unfolding in the Balkans has echoes of more recent history. On the Serbian side of the border at Bajakovo — one of the crossings where Nidal and his fellow travelers were turned back before they reached Tovarnik — the walls of buildings are plastered with posters that say “Storm is a Pogrom.” The posters show pictures of columns of refugees heading in the other direction: fleeing into Serbia from Croatia. They are not Syrians, Afghans, or Iraqis but Serbs who had been living in Croatia.

In August 1995, Croatian troops launched Operation Storm, an offensive campaign that succeeded in retaking 4,000 square miles of territory from the Serb forces that had occupied it since 1991. In the process, about 600 Serbs were killed and some 200,000 displaced, according to the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. In Croatia, Operation Storm is remembered as a crowning moment of Croatia’s modern statehood, called “Victory and Homeland Gratitude Day,” and marked with nationalist celebrations. In Serbia, the same date is known as the “Day of Remembrance of Suffering and Persecution.”

Today, the two Balkan neighbors are not fighting over territory but to advance their positions in the European Union. Croatia seeks to enter the EU’s Schengen zone, while Serbia aspires to join the EU.

But, says Sunter, politicians on both sides are also fighting for the hearts and minds of voters. In both countries, they are exploiting the refugee crisis for political gain. Croatia holds parliamentary elections in November, and Serbia will likely hold them in January. “The Balkans as a region is less prepared than other parts of Europe, especially because of the traumatic experiences from the recent past,” said Sunter. “This is helping extremists on all sides to use that for their own political purposes.”

Milanovic’s Social Democrats are under fire from the more nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which holds the presidency, as elections approach. Milanovic said Serbia was working against him, adding that “Budapest, Belgrade, HDZ is the holy trinity.”

The fact that politicians on both sides believe this kind of rhetoric will win votes worries many in the region. “This is a risk with a history that has never been dealt with, and it leads to a risk of setting back relations more than just a few days of trouble between two governments,” said Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz.

The border dispute came to an end — at least for now — on Sept. 25, following a visit to Belgrade from EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn. The borders were opened, but the rhetoric has hardly abated, and the local newspapers remain full of acrimony and accusations.

How quickly the war of words and goods escalated — and how it was eventually stopped — reveals just how raw emotions are, and the crucial role that Brussels continues to play in keeping the Western Balkans stable. “The Balkans are an echo chamber of EU policy, and this is a reflection of the fact that there is no EU policy,” said Bieber. “All of the Balkan governments look toward the EU to interpret signals of how they should behave, but they receive mixed messages about protecting their external borders and welcoming the refugees humanely.”

At the damp, makeshift camp in the train station in Tovarnik, Nidal knows that he has three or four more borders (depending on which way the Croatian government sends him) and 1,000 miles between himself and his final destination, Germany. The wait, whatever its causes, is excruciating. But once he arrives in Western Europe, he will also need to navigate a disorganized, divided, and squabbling EU, with no clear policy toward him and millions like him looking for safety and stability.

Photo credit: David Ramos/Getty Images

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