Tense Balkan relations amidst refugee crisis

On their route to the Northern countries of the EU, many refugees pass from Turkey into Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. However, due to Hungary’s restrictive measures across the Hungary-Serbia border, refugees are now forced to take a detour through EU member state Croatia. Even though refugees mostly transit through the country and do not intend to apply for asylum, Croatia has had major trouble dealing with the influx of the refugees. They are seeking entrance into Hungary and Slovenia, both part of the borderless Schengen zone, but are often not admitted. This has left an unprepared Croatia with thousands of refugees, full refugee camps and no clear strategy to deal with this problem. Sunday, after closing 7 borders earlier that week, Croatia closed its final border crossing with Serbia, leading to increased tensions between the two countries.

Serbia– Hungary issues

The increase of refugees in Croatia started when Hungary closed two border crossings with Serbia and erected a fence along the length of their shared border. On 16 September Hungarian police clashed with refugees who attempted to storm the border crossing at Horgos and used teargas and water cannons against them, while they were on Serbian territory.  Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic (Serbian Progressive Party, SNS) initially commented that he would “not allow anyone to humiliate us” and “throw teargas on Serbian territory”. To this Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijiato responded that Serbia’s criticism was “bizarre and surprising” and that they were “encouraging those people who are committing a crime”. However on 20 September the Interior Ministers of Hungary and Serbia jointly reopened the Horgos 1 border, which had been closed for several days, as Serbia’s Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic hailed this act as “proof that Serbia and Hungary, as responsible states, can manage this crisis” and insisted that Serbia has “excellent relations with Hungary”.

Hungary – Croatia issues

As Serbia-Hungary relations normalized, the relations between Hungary and Croatia became very strained. President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic (Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ) said that national security should be Croatia’s priority, criticizing Greece for “emptying its refugee camps” and asked the chief of General Staff to raise the level of urgency. Meanwhile Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic (Social Democratic Party, SDP) said the country will not become “the so-called hotspot for refugees while its neighbors are closing their borders”. Milanovic said that “refugees will not stay in Croatia” and “we will surely direct them to Slovenia and Hungary”. This angered Hungary and Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned that a fence would be built on the Croatia-Hungary border. The tensions grew further when Croatia tried to transport a thousand refugees by train to Hungary, who accused Croatia of “human smuggling” , committing “a major violation of international law” and “violating Hungary’s sovereignty”. Furthermore Hungary threatened to block Croatia’s accession to the Schengen zone and said that they displayed “no European solidarity”. Milanovic responded that trains to Hungary would continue and he would “force them” to accept refugees “by sending people there”. In response Hungary reportedly send armed forces to the Croatian border after parliament approved them to use non-lethal force against refugees and to use Kalashnikovs in self-defense.

Croatia-Serbia issues

As Croatia had some tensions with Hungary, tensions with Serbia were even higher. On September 17 Croatia’s  Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said that if the refugees would enter the country in the same high paste as the first day Hungary closed its border with Serbia, Croatia would also close the border with Serbia. During last week Croatia closed 7 of its 8 border crossings with Serbia and on 20 September closed the final border crossing, halting all Serbian cargo traffic and thus hurting the country’s economy.  Croatian PM Milanovic said “we are no fools; we see what they’re doing”. Interior Minister Ostojic said in Serbia he saw “organized transport of migrants directly to Croatia”, while Serbia did not send migrants to its other neighboring countries, especially Hungary. Serbia’s PM Vucic threatened to retaliate “by legal means that will hit their country far harder than their measures are hurting ours” if Croatia does not lift the blockade. On the 24th Croatia announces it closed its Serbian border for all passenger vehicles and busses with Serbian license plates until Hungary opens up the Serbian-Hungarian Horgos border for refugees.

Milanovic said he did not expect Serbia to introduce countermeasures because “those would be measures against the EU”. But in response Serbia blocked entrance to Croatian cargo vehicles and goods, which Croatia called “manipulation that can pass in Belgrade, but not in Zagreb or Brussels”. The Serbian Chamber of Commerce called on Slovenian companies to “send a clear signal to the Croatian government”, as the closing of the Serbian-Croatian border affects companies in the whole region. Meanwhile Ostojic said Serbia was creating “a human catastrophe” with the refugees, while Serbian Trade Minister Rasim Ljajic said he would “not allow anyone to lecture us”. On the 23rd Vucic sent a letter to the EU to ask for an explanation of Croatia’s breaching of Serbia’s Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU and on the 24th a delegation of the European Parliament met in Belgrade. The delegation praised Serbia’s treatment of refugees and called Croatia’s measures unacceptable. Croatia’s President Kitarovic said the country’s response to the refugee crisis has undermined diplomatic relations with the neighbors, while Serbia’s president Tomislav Nikolic said that “selfishness has emerged in some EU members”.

EU policy

These issues between neighboring countries in the Balkan comes as the EU does not have an agreement on the sharing of the burden of the refugees by EU member states. Serbian Interior Minister Stefanovic said that “what we expect from the EU is to tell us what the form of good European behavior is”, “what values Serbia should share”. Serbia fears to become “a no man’s land of blocked refugees” if the EU member states will close their borders with the country. Meanwhile Bosnia-Herzegovina fears that a bottleneck of refugees in Serbia will shift the refugee route to their country. Macedonia, where the emergency situation in the border region is still implemented, is considering to building a Hungarian style fence on its border with Greece “if we take seriously what Europe is asking us to do”, according to Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki. On 22 September a deal was reached in the EU over the distribution of 120.000 refugees among the member states.

Linda Kies

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