Saturday, January 25, 2003

Serbian War Reparations – Reality Check

Croatian President Stipe Mesić (Stipe Mesic) yesterday stated that Croatia should seek some 15 billion US$ of war reparations from Serbia. The word "should" indicates how much power the office of Croatian President has these days. Last changes of Croatian Constitution – brought after valiant but hopeless struggle with Parliament and Cabinet being dominated by Prime Minister Račan (Racan) and Mesić's election rival Dražen Budiša (Drazen Budisa) – left Mesić with only ceremonial duties. The only way for Mesić to exert some form of influence on Croatian politics is through public statements, many of them being explicit or implicit criticism of Račan's policies. Some of those statements, on the other hand, represent nothing more than populism or Mesić's attempts to regain his importance in the area of foreign affairs. The latter should be easy, since Mesić is not only a head of state, but also the most recognisable Croatian politician after Tudjman, especially after his testimony on Milošević's (Milosevic's) trial at Hague. In trying to be foreign policy player, Mesić has often shot himself in the foot, the worst example being his misguided offer to work as a mediator between ethnic Albanian rebels and Macedonian government – effort that only managed to poison relations between FYROM and Croatia and bring unpleasant questions about the role of ethnic Albanian lobby in financing Mesić's election campaign.

Mesić's reparations initiative is obviously aimed at maintaining Mesić's reputation as a champion of anti-Milošević cause in the Balkans and anti-Tudjman cause in Croatia. Mesić wants to remind Croatian public that he was against any compromise with Milošević and Serbian nationalism, unlike his former party chief Tudjman. He also wants to make impression of Račan's government adopting this part of Tudjman's legacy and thus betraying Croatian national interests. Finally, those 15 billion euros would be more than a welcome boost to impoverished Croatian economy and the little guy, who is these days worse off than he was three years ago, when Račan's government came to power.

However, it is less likely that Račan's government (or any other that comes to power after next year's elections) would seriously pursue Mesić's initiative. The effort would require too much time, energy for meagre, questionable or counterproductive results.

The most obvious reason is extremely poor shape of Serbian finances. Country that had broken its Constitution and sold their former president for measly 50 million US$ of American short-term aid is not likely to pay out even the modest fraction of Mesić's sum in the foreseeable future. Historical precedent of Germany and its reparations, that had, among other things, financed post-WW2 economic boom of former Yugoslavia, is not likely to repeat itself in this particular case. If Serbia becomes obligated to pay those 15 billion euros, this could happen only in many instalments over incredibly long time. The amounts would be too little to provide compensations to the victims of Serbian aggression, yet too much for grand-grand-children of today's Serbs who would remain embittered about this sort of Carthaginian peace for decades, if not centuries, to come.

Furthermore, Croatian nationalists' Schadenfreude over Serbian financial burden would be short-lived when those reparations are applied as precedent in similar cases. Nothing would prevent Bosnia-Herzegovina from claiming billions of euros from Croatia for the devastation caused by Muslim-Croat conflict of 1992-94. And nothing should prevent ethnic Serbs from Croatia to also seek billions of euros of compensation for the stuff that went on during and after Operation Storm in summer of 1995 (or Bosnian Serbs from claiming the same for Croatian atrocities in today's Republic of Srpska few months later).

So, it is quite evident that pressing this issue would do little but open old wounds, create new Versailles-like myths and bitterness and hatred, making Balkans closer to its reputation. And even the government as incompetent and irresponsible as Račan's is would not allow itself to take this initiative seriously. The only serious thing about Mesić's statement is its effect on Croatian President's reputation of a statesman.


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