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Update No: 157 - (25/06/10)

Third time lucky; a forgiving Croatian president
"We have to improve our relations. That was one of the most important objectives of my presidential programme," said President Ivo Josipovic during a visit to European Union headquarters in Brussels. Ultimately willing to turn the page even on the genocide cases sitting at the International Court of Justice, provided certain conditions are met, Josipovic says bilateral problems must be settled "once and for all."

President Josipovic, who was sworn in May as his country's third president, said "Croatian and Serbian politicians must work much more proactively" towards reconciliation, because "the current generation owes it to the next not to bequeath its problems" from the past.

The social democrat is a renowned expert in the field of international criminal law and a classical music composer in his spare time.

He was one of the authors of Croatia's complaint of genocide and "ethnic cleansing" against Serbia for its role in the 1991-95 war, which followed Croatia's declaration of independence from the former Yugoslavia. About 20,000 people died in the war.

The International Criminal Tribunal, the highest UN court, ruled in 2008 that it will hear that case, but Serbia filed a counter-complaint on January 4 this year, citing genocide against ethnic Serbs.

According to the UN, more than 200,000 ethnic Serbs fled Croatia in 1995, when the Croatian army launched a military operation to retake territory occupied by rebel Serbs, who were backed by the hard-line regime of late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

Some 40,000 people went missing during the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, according to the International Commission on Missing Persons.

Josipovic does not rule out the possibility of both countries withdrawing their cases. "That will depend on efforts to resolve all the other problems linked to the war, the fate of those who disappeared, (confiscated) property and war criminals," he said.

The toughest to come
Arguably the touchiest issue remains cooperation by Belgrade with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. "Serbia has altered its policy and has started to cooperate," Josipovic said. "But they have still not handed over two key accused," said the president, referring to Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader, and Goran Hadjic, the Croatian Serb leader.

Mladic is accused of being behind the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left 10,000 people dead and the July 1995 massacre of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. He is the UN court's most wanted fugitive and has been on the run since being indicted in 1995. His arrest is a key condition for Serbia's progress towards EU membership.

Hadzic, 51, is wanted for the murder of hundreds of people and the deportation of tens of thousands of Croat and non-Serb civilians during the Croatian war.

New strains emerged when Croatia recognised Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia. Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, boycotted Josipovic's inauguration on February 18 because Kosovo's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, was in attendance.

Into the EU?
Nevertheless, Josipovic does not see "animosity" emanating from Belgrade. The two countries have a common goal: accession to the European Union (EU) and through it access to the world's biggest trading bloc.

Serbia may barely have reached the waiting-room door, but Croatia is almost there. "Negotiations can realistically end by the close of this year," said Josipovic, who envisages a 2012 entry based on efforts to eliminate corruption in the public sector and modernise its judiciary.
"It's in Croatia's interests that all the countries of the (Balkans) region enter the EU... as soon as possible," he insisted.

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