Božo Skoko

PhD Božo Skoko

Božo Skoko is an full professor at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Zagreb, where he is head of the Public Relations postgraduate study. His scientific interests are: public relations and communications, international relations, national identity and image, as well as media. He is the co-founder of Millenium promocija, the leading Croatian public relations agency. He is a long-time strategic communications consultant. He is a former journalist and editor with Croatian Television. He is the author of seven books and over seventy scientific papers on public relations, the media and managing the identity and image of Croatia. He is a columnist with the daily newspaper Večernji list.
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Croats have too many complexes and Serbs too few

Differences and similarities between Serbs and Croats

From 2011 to 2016 Croatia was ruled by a democratic, pro-European left-wing party. During the same period Serbia was ruled by nationalist and pro-Russian politicians. Nevertheless, Serbia got out of recession sooner than Croatia did. To be sure, the Croatian institutions had been reformed and Europeanized, but regardless of that, many entrepreneurs claimed that it was easier for them to do business in Serbia. The standard of living is far higher than that in Serbia but it seems that our Serbian neighbors enjoy life a lot more. During the period in question Croatia became a member of the European Union. Serbia only received a date for opening accession talks. Croatia faithfully completed every task the European Union imposed on it and abided by all the conditions of the international community. Serbia, by contrast, managed to force the European Union and international community to compromise on a number of issues and even ignored some pressures without incurring any penalties from either the EU or international community. Croatia cooperated in good faith with the Hague Tribunal as regards processing cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity while Serbia stalled, protected those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and withheld evidence. At that time Croatia was often described as a regional leader while Serbia and Serbs were depicted as villains in Hollywood films. The Serbs marveled at how clean and modern Croatian cities were and how modern and developed the road network was and the Croats envied the Serbs’ ability to attract foreign investment – the Fiat company alone invested almost a million euros in the car factory in Kragujevac and Austrian investors created 20.000 jobs in the period from 2000 to 2013. The Serbs’ knack for attracting foreign investment is best reflected in President Putin’s plan, presented in 2013 in Sochi to Serbian President Nikolić, to invest an additional 1,5 billion euros to the same amount already invested in the Serbian NIS oil company. Putin also offered 1,7 billion dollars for financing the Serbian stretch of the South Stream pipeline. In light of the above we simply have to ask ourselves: Where is our INA company and what happened with the promises of our Hungarian partners?

Some people may say – Croats are pedantic, principled, they stick to the rules and like to pretend they’re smarter than they really are and, as a result, often botch things up, whereas Serbs are often rude, boorish and like to break the rules but nevertheless make things happen. In the late 80s a theatre play called Šovinistička farsa (Chauvinistic Farce) was very popular in Belgrade. The play in a way “embodied” all the stereotypes about the Croats and the Serbs. The typical Croat is depicted as a short and lively man in a white suit, always charming, good-mannered and conflict-averse. The typical Serb, on the other hand, is depicted as a spontaneous and boorish man, tall of stature, unpretentious but bursting with self-confidence. There are many jokes about Serbs and Croats in which the Serb is always rough around the edges but manly, while the Croat is slightly effeminate and overly polite. These stereotypes persist to this day and many Croatian girls perceive Serbs as macho guys as opposed to many Serbian girls who expect every Croatian male to be a romantic lover. We encounter stereotypical differences between the Serbs and Croats on many other levels too. For example, the popular perception is that the Serbs, for whatever reason, are better tennis players than the Croats. But, for equally inexplicable reasons, everyone agrees that the Croats are better football players. Croatian film buffs adore Serbian movies; Croats like Serbian humor. The Serbs look up to Croatian culture and are fans of Croatian music. The Serbs are envious of our coast and we are envious of their joie de vivre. The Croats admire the Serbs’ defiant nature and sense of unity while the Serbs commend the Croats for their adaptability and diplomatic tact. From time immemorial the Serbs have always been belligerent and resolute, while the Croats have always exhibited a proneness to compromise and eschewed violence. The great Serbian poet Jovan Jovanović addressed the issue of the differences between Serbs and Croats in his poem Što se čuje… (What Is Going on…)

The Croat fights not to pillage, nor to plunder nor to steal

Instead the sacred flame in his hearth he protects with zeal

Come hell or high water he will not be made to falter

For God and justice kneel with him at the holy altar

And the Serb – will he forever astray be led

On the evil path of lawlessness and bloodshed?

The Croatian War of Independence started when Serbia attacked Croatia in 1991. The war lasted for four years and ended in a Croatian decisive victory. During the war the YPA and Serb paramilitaries destroyed many Croatian churches, hospitals, homes. It has to be said that the Croatian Army never set foot on Serbian territory. It expelled the Serbian invaders and stopped at the border. Crimes were committed by both sides. However, the crimes committed by the Serbian side were part of a deliberate campaign of terror, genocide and ethnic cleansing whereas the crimes committed by the Croatian side were the results of the immediate exigencies of war. A good analogy, both in terms of scale and nature, would be the Holocaust versus, say, the Biscari massacre. The former was a state-sponsored project of genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity on a massive scale while the latter was a case of adrenaline pumped victors of a hard fought and brutal engagement showing no mercy to the defeated soldiers. Ever more Serbian citizens, luckily for all concerned, are becoming aware that the acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing committed by their troops on foreign soil cannot fit into the same sentence with individual acts of brutality committed by Croatian soldiers. It is worthy of note that the Serb ethnic minority in Croatia enjoys more rights than any given minority anywhere else in the European Union and that the Croatian minority in Serbia is marginalized with practically no rights at all. The YPA and Serb paramilitary formations ethnically cleansed large areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the international community rewarded them for a job wall done by giving them an autonomous republic within the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ironically, the Bosnian Croats, who defended the country from Serbian aggression, today have no rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Croat defenders of Bosnia and Herzegovina were rewarded by the international community for their efforts with the stigma of being aggressors in the service of Croatia. The Republic of Croatia conscientiously cooperated with the Hague Tribunal to the point of giving state secrets to the prosecutors whereas Serbia withheld evidence. So, in the end, a huge number of mass murderers and war criminals from Serbia have escaped justice while many Croats have been found guilty on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. Croatian naivety and Serbian guile, one might be tempted to conclude. The situation is somewhat paradoxical because for centuries Serb intellectuals were fond of calling the Croats “those shrewd Latins”.

Anyway, the war is behind us and, like it or not, Serbia is an important trading partner for Croatia. The Croats export many more products to Serbia than vice versa. Many Croatian companies actually depend on their exports to Serbia. The Serbian market is saturated with Croatian products. Serbia, it is obvious, will not make much headway in their membership negotiations with the European Union without Croatia’s backing. And the Croatian government did pledge to provide that help to Serbia.

Croatia wanted to shed its Balkan legacy. Serbia, on the other hand, is comfortable in its Balkan skin because it continues to deftly exploit the great powers’ political aspirations in the Balkan Peninsula. Croatia is ashamed of the fact that the country was run by a Fascist regime during WWII. The Serbs have no problem with extolling their war criminals and mass murderers who fought in the service of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany as national heroes. It is fair to say that Serbia plays the game of diplomacy more adroitly than Croatia. Serbia even managed to place its man, Vuk Jeremić, at the helm of the United Nations General Assembly. The Croats are prone to disowning everything that is not 100 per cent Croatian (Nikola Tesla, Ivo Andrić, Rade Šerbedžija). The Serbs, on the other hand, will always happily appropriate what is clearly not theirs. It seems that Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges was right on the money when he said that Croats have too many complexes and Serbs too few.

It is hard to imagine a reality where Croatia does not have Serbia to compare itself to and where Serbia doesn’t have Croatia to blame for its manifold woes. No wonder because the countries were locked in a macabre dance of rivalry, war and, ironically, interdependence for almost a century. The existence of every incarnation of Yugoslavia was fuelled by the energy generated by the friction between the Serbs and the Croats. The international community was, for about 25 years following the end of the Croatian War of Independence, doing everything in its power to escalate the rivalry between Serbia and Croatia. For example, whenever Serbia made a wrong diplomatic move the West would favor Croatia and bring it one step closer to Euro-Atlantic integration. Whenever Serbia seemed to be in a cooperative mood, Western European diplomats were quick to travel to Belgrade with assurances that Croatia would not become a member of the European Union before Serbia because such a development would seriously disrupt the balance of power in the region. The European Union praised Croatia for its eagerness to cooperate fully with the Hague Tribunal and publically criticized Serbia for not following Croatia’s lead. The international community, with regard to Serbia and Croatia, mercilessly played both sides against the middle. At times it seemed that any success by one country can only be achieved at the expense of the other. Only when the international community desisted from creating undue friction between Croatia and Serbia did the abominable symbiotic relationship between the two countries end.

The new political relationship between Croatia and Serbia will not be marred by constant antagonism. It will be a somewhat boring relationship, with Serbian audiences lavishing extended applauses on the performances of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra and Croatian audiences attending in droves plays by Serbian touring theatres, with Serbian entrepreneurs investing money in Croatian businesses, and with the Croatian minority in Serbia not being marginalized and discriminated against. The Croats need no longer fear being thrown into some kind of a new federation of the Balkan nations, and the Serbs need no longer be envious of Croatia’s membership in the EU because being a member of the EU, burdened with many problems as the Union is nowadays, is a dubious honor. The Croats have come to realize that, regardless of what union of nations they are a constituent part of, cooperation with their neighbors is a must. And the Serbs have come to realize that Croatia is their window into the West. With time, the scars of war will heal and the stereotypes will lose its potency. Most of these stereotypes come from the detritus of history and often serve a contemporary political purpose. Both the Serbs and Croats are now free to come to terms with the past. There will be no need for stereotypes to either bolster or justify whatever political initiative. As Olivera Milosavljević, a renowned Serbian scholar once wrote, “A Croatia that is politically distant is the main precondition to establishing a future relationship based, among other things, on the healthy indifference our generation reserves for the first enemy of Serbia, the Bulgars.” History tells us that we always got along splendidly with the Serbs when we did not depend politically on one another. We still, however, have to realize that not everything coming from across the eastern border is bad. There are many differences between the Serbs and the Croats. And they point to many valuable lessons we can learn from one another.

(from book "Understanding Croatia":