Right when the Croatian market is being shaken by findings of salmonella in the chicken and minced meat, as well as an obvious weak food control, society was scandalised by a chocolate problem. Chocolate had no other problems besides being… Serbian. On December 6th, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović visited Dubrovnik on the occasion of the Day of Dubrovnik War Veterans, who defended the town from the Yugoslav People’s Army in the beginning of the 1990’s. In the course of her visit the president gave gifts to war veterans’ children consisting of sweets and a photograph of herself with an autograph. Instead of the latter, the scandal was caused by the chocolate bars in the packs, which turned out to be manufactured in Serbia. The parent of one of the children in the kindergarten vented their outrage on Facebook from the fact that right on the day of Dubrovnik war veterans Kolinda (as she is called in Croatia) gave the kids Serbian chocolates.
The parent’s reaction is understandable and it is not the problem. The reaction of the president of an EU member state is what is causing perplexity. Mrs Grabar-Kitarović apologised for the gaffe, explaining that she was not aware of the chocolate’s origin and was even more outraged for it turned out that the chocolates were packaged by a Croatian company in … Vukovar. She promised that those, who do not want these, will receive Croatian-made chocolates, for her role was, besides all else, to promote Croatian produce.
There are several problems with this story
The first one is that Croatia has made a commitment, restated on multiple occasions by Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović herself, to help Serbia along its way towards European membership. There are still a multitude of unresolved issues between the two states from the war for the separation of Croatia from the former Yugoslavia, which are extremely serious, and which require strong political will. It is due to some of those that Zagreb initiated the blocking the opening of negotiation chapters with Serbia. Current authorities in Belgrade have enough transgressions which need being pointed out and Croatia should get the support of its EU partners for it. Among those problems is the relativisation of crimes committed by the Milošević regime with crimes of the Ustaša regime during World War Two. Among those are also the attempts of Serbian authorities to play down the Milošević regime crimes and even allow calls for its exoneration.
Serbia still has much to do regarding cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, hate speech, unresolved property and cultural issues, border disputes, unsolved cases of Croatian nationals gone missing in action during the war, and the treatment of minorities. It is a long list and it is articulated generally in the European Commission’s annual reports on Serbia’s progress towards EU membership. And this is just regarding neighbourly relations. Serbia’s domestic political issues with the rule of law, democracy, and media freedom are a whole different story.
The second problem is that Zagreb is part of the EU common market and in this sense it is bewildering when a case of protectionism arises. Certainly, the particular cause is a different one, but the president’s reaction reveals an inclination towards protectionism. This comes in direct contradiction with Croatia’s European commitments towards the EU and countries of the enlargement process. Instead of attempting to promote Croatian-made products, the head of state should fight for raising the levels of productivity and competitiveness in Croatia, and also for having Croatian products break through on the European market. The latter, apropos, is a problem, pointed out in the economic reports on the European semester. In the end of the day, if Croatian products are more competitive they will also be demanded more not only on the domestic, but also on the European and regional markets.
Moreover, there is another perspective missing in the whole chocolate drama. If the chocolate bars were packaged by a company in Vukovar, it has probably opened X jobs, which are feeding families in one of the Croatian towns which gets abandoned the quickest. There was no mention of the share of this company’s business in the town’s economy and how could it be a problem that Serbian raw materials are being used in a town, where there are Serbs living as well. This company probably pays taxes and social security contributions.
Reaction from Serbia was one to be expected. Minister of Foreign and Domestic Trade and Telecommunications Rasim Ljajić said on the occasion of the chocolate affair that it is obvious that Serbian products are not welcome in Croatia. “The statement of Croatia’s president is undemocratic, un-European, and un-economic”, he said, quoted by Tanjug. One could often see in Serbian press the disappointment that while Serbs like Croatian products, Serbian ones are obviously problematic in Croatia. “What reconciliation could we be talking about”, was an often asked question. And a very legitimate one. If a bar of chocolate could be a problem in relations between two countries, attempting to resolve their post-war problems, as was a movie as well this year, then there is something very wrong.
Croatia served as an example for all other countries from the Western Balkans that transformation in this region is possible. Such jingoistic fussiness, however, seriously damages Croatia’s image of an intermediary between the EU and those countries, which still have a long way to go until they catch-up with the, alas ever eroding, standards of the European Union. Instead of showing that it has outgrown petty nationalism and is a truly mature European democracy and a free market, Croatia shows with such reactions that it has not stepped out of Balkan-ism. In her wish not to lose the votes of war veterans and nationalist-minded voters, the president is doing harm in the long term to the future of her country in the region and the EU in general.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić likes very much to say, although he is not being too convincing in proving this wish of his, that he wishes for relations in the region to be like those between France and Germany, which from warring countries turned into the engine behind EU development. To achieve this, however, it is necessary that both states – Serbia and Croatia – turn away from pettiness and everyday politics and look strategically towards each other and towards the region in general. This was done by France and Germany not only for their own good, but for the benefit of the entire continent. Croatia has shown many times how it is done, but has been failing to do so lately. Moreover, such actions only feed fuel to the engine of hate-propagators like Vojislav Šešelj, who took immediate advantage of the latest gaffe of the Croatian president, while from the beginning of autumn Croatia has been making an impression of returning politics back to the flow of normalcy. It is a pity if a chocolate bar can derail this process.