Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic has expressed concern "about the fact that a feeling of being threatened has been spreading in the Serb community in Croatia", dismissing as incorrect media speculation that the Croatian president had set conditions for his visit to Zagreb.
In an interview with the Belgrade-based Danas daily of Monday, Nikolic said that there was no truth whatsoever in claims that President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic had set conditions for his official visit to Croatia.
"I met with the President of Croatia in Zagreb slightly more than two months ago and she said 'I will invite you at the beginning of next year, but wait until the new government is formed as we are about to have elections,'" Nikolic said, recalling post-election negotiations in Croatia.
He said that Grabar-Kitarovic was also aware of the outcome of his visit to the Vatican, where he discussed with Pope Francis plans for the canonisation of Zagreb Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac.
"The Pope said that a commission would be formed and the leadership of the Serb Orthodox Church has accepted dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church regarding plans for the canonisation of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac. During my visit, the Pope stressed that he did not want (Stepinac) to be the first saint not to be recognised by a Christian church, and that he wanted saints to be recognised and respected by all, as until now," Nikolic said, adding that the joint commission had already started working.
"Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic had this information when she told me that she would invite me to visit," Nikolic underlined.
When asked if this meant that the Croatian authorities did not demand information on missing Croatian citizens, Nikolic said that whenever the Croatian side wanted to stop or delay something, it mentioned "a camp in Serbia where Croatian soldiers were brought and then went missing."
"I asked them: Where is that location? We will dig wherever you say, we have no reason to hide anything if such a thing really exists. But they never did that, yet you constantly hear statements from Croatia that relations cannot be good as long as the fate of people who went missing in Serbia remains unknown. There is also the issue of some stolen property, cultural heritage and works of art. If we start talking like that... then we should not talk at all," said Nikolic, recalling that the Serbian side, too, had questions to ask.
"What about missing Serbs, about those who were expelled and their property, about the usurpation of their property, their pension rights? That has not been and should not be an obstacle to better relations between Serbia and Croatia. The governments can and should deal with that," he stressed.
Asked if cooperation was possible with the new Croatian government whose attitude to the Croatian Serb community has already been questioned, Nikolic said that "it is the destiny of every Croatian political party or politician during the election campaign and immediately after it."
"Campaigns in Croatia are unfortunately still won on who will protect Croatia better from Serbia, as if Croatia were threatened by Serbia. And when they do form a government, they have to continue talking like that for two to three more months, until strikes start over wages, unpaid contributions and then the usual social and economic story starts, just like in every other country. Croatia's bad relationship to Serbia is transposed to Vukovar and that is actually where cooperation starts and ends. So, we have to wait for about two more months," said Nikolic.
"I don't want to add fuel to the fire between Serbia and Croatia, but I am very concerned about the fact that a feeling of being threatened has been spreading in the Serb community in Croatia," he stressed.
Commenting on a remark that Serbia-Croatia relations were always in a state of a latent conflict, and asked if there was a preventive regional mechanism to ease those conflicts, Nikolic said that he had been proposing for a long time getting rid of weapons, agreeing on cooperation and eliminating any war options.
"I have been saying for many years that we should sit down and agree to throw away all weapons that there are in the former Yugoslavia, to not have any armies, but rather special anti-terrorist units, that those units should cooperate with one another and, naturally, that we have police... Why does Croatia need weapons for a war against Serbia? If Croatia started a war with Serbia, NATO would start a war with us. And why does Serbia need extra weapons if NATO turns against us? So we can defend ourselves for three months? Reason tells that we should throw away weapons as a way of solving our disputes and conflicts," said the Serbian head of state.
Commenting on the situation in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, he said that the country was "like a sick man" and that political stakeholders there were only looking for a way to carve it up to their own liking.
Commenting on the process of Serbia's integration with the EU, Nikolic expressed hope that "Kosovo's recognition will never be a condition for Serbia's accession."
"Should it turn out to be a condition for our membership - they don't need to admit us, but at least we will have made order in the country according to 34 policy chapters. But if every chapter states that the area it covers has to be regulated in line with the Pristina constitution and legislation, then dealing with all those chapters will be very difficult," he said, adding that just as in the case of the migrant crisis, the EU was revealing its fragility also regarding relations between "Serbia and Pristina".
"It demonstrates, on the one hand, exceptional influence on Serbia, and on the other, powerlessness when it comes to Pristina's demands, which surprises and worries me," Nikolic said in the interview.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, too, said in Belgrade on Sunday that he was worried about reports of hate speech and intolerance targeting the president of the Serb National Council, Milorad Pupovac, and Serbs in Croatia.
He said that he had talked to Pupovac and was worried about what he had heard. "We are not looking for political reasons to argue or score political points, but the reaction of some people in Croatia to the letter (Pupovac's letter to the Croatian president in which he complained about growing intolerance in Croatia) is something that needs to change," Vucic said, adding that he was prepared to discuss all problems with Croatian representatives "and the rest is up to them to decide."