Serbian president visits Croatia amid tensions, protests

Serbia's president Aleksandar Vucic, left, and his Croatian counterpart Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic shake hands in Zagreb, Croatia, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. President Vucic is on a two day state visit to Croatia.(AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
Serbia's president Aleksandar Vucic, center and his Croatian counterpart Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic review honor guards during the arrival ceremony in Zagreb, Croatia, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. President Vucic is on a two day state visit to Croatia.(AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
Serbia's president Aleksandar Vucic, left and his Croatian counterpart Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic review honor guards during the arrival ceremony in Zagreb, Croatia, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. President Vucic is on a two day state visit to Croatia. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
Serbia's president Aleksandar Vucic, center and his Croatian counterpart Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic review honor guards during an arrival ceremony in Zagreb, Croatia, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. President Vucic is on a two day state visit to Croatia.(AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

ZAGREB, Croatia — The presidents of Croatia and Serbia pledged Monday to work on easing tensions between the two Balkan rivals stemming from their 1990s war, amid protests by Croatian war veterans and nationalists.

Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic was on a two-day visit to Croatia seen as an attempt to boost economic ties and solve some of the festering issues that have marred relations between the two neighbors since their war during the bloody breakup of former Yugoslavia.

Relations between Serbia and Croatia are considered key for peace and stability of the Balkans.

"Unfortunately, the relations between Serbia and Croatia are burdened by the past," Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said after her talks with Vucic. "Unfortunately, that past is still preventing us from being able to describe the relations between our two countries as friendly."

"It is our obligation to meet and talk and find common interests," she said, adding that the two countries had a "common responsibility for the future of southeast Europe."

Vucic said he came to "discuss all our open issues, which are many."

"In the next one hundred days we will try to change the atmosphere," he said.

Both presidents said they still disagreed on many open issues, including the Danube river border between the two countries. Vucic said Serbia and Croatia will try to resolve the border problem in the next two years, or take it to international arbitration.

Failure to resolve the border issue could pose a major hurdle for Serbia's eventual entry into the European Union as it could be blocked by Croatia, which is already a member.

The EU has told Serbia and other membership candidates from the Western Balkans they must solve their border problems before joining.

More than 1,000 Croatian war veterans and nationalists protested against Vucic, a former fervent nationalist from the war era who now says he is a pro-EU reformer. The protesters carried Croatian flags and banners denouncing Vucic's ultra-nationalist stance during the 1991-1995 conflict that erupted when Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia, triggering a rebellion by its Serbian minority.

The Croatian protesters demanded an apology and war reparations from Serbia, which backed the Serbian rebels during a conflict that killed 10,000 people.

Strong security measures were in place throughout the Croatian capital for the visit, including snipers on the roofs of the houses where Vucic's motorcade was passing by.

The visit was originally planned for last year, but postponed amid numerous disputes.

Croatia earlier this year protested a Serbian exhibition about a World War II concentration camp in Croatia where tens of thousands Serbs, Jews and Gypsies were killed by Croatia's wartime pro-Nazi puppet regime.

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