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FRI, 21 DEC 2001 00:05:33 GMT

Vukovar Cultural Treasure Returned

AIM Zagreb, December 15, 2001

"The return of the works and treasures of art of the City Museum of Vukovar is an act that will mark a new life in Vukovar and greatly contribute to the development of relations between two states and peoples", said the Croatian Culture Minister, Antun Vujic on December 13 in Vukovar on the occasion of the signing of a protocol on handing-over of the Vukovar cultural treasures, which the Serbian units had taken from Vukovar during the 1991 occupation. The protocol on the delivery of the Vukovar cultural materials was signed by Assistant Foreign Minister of the Republic of Croatia Ms.Branka Sulc and the FRY Assistant Foreign Minister Ms.Aleksandra Joksimovic. They pointed out that this was done in fulfilment of the agreement that Foreign Ministers of Croatia and Yugoslavia, Tonino Picula and Goran Svilanovic, had reached a month ago in New York.

Apart from numerous guests - the Croatian Culture Minister Antun Vujic, the FRY Assistant Culture Minister Jovan Despotovic, representatives of the Vojvodina Museum from Novi Sad - President of the Assembly of Vojvodina Nenad Canak (quite apart from protocolary procedure) also attended the official delivery of art treasures in the City Museum of Vukovar. "If only everything else could be so easily returned as these treasures, we would all live much better", said Canak.

According to the data from the records of Croatian and Yugoslav expert associations for the review and identification of the Vukovar cultural treasure, the following materials were kept in the Novi Sad storehouses: over two thousand art objects from the Bauer collection and the Vukovar Gallery of Arts, part of the church fund of the Vukovar Franciscan monastery of St.Phillip and Jacob, as well as 253 objects from cultural-historic collection, archaeological and numismatic materials, stock books and parts of professional library. Records of the Ministry of Culture stated that during the Serbian occupation some 30 thousand objects of art had disappeared and were taken from Vukovar.

Namely, the Yugoslav side returned what it kept under control, which expressed in numbers included exactly 21,651 works and objects of art. "Now we have to find what has been stolen. That is Interpol's task and should not burden the relations between our two states", said Antun Vujic, Culture Minister. Asked which questions regarding the return of sacral treasures of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Croatia still burdened the Croatian-Yugoslav relations, Minister Vujic replied that "all cultural heritage in Croatia is considered Croatian cultural heritage and that the heritage of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) is Croatian heritage of Serbian nationality".

The analysis of Vujic's statement points to the conclusion that, on the one hand, the SPC's property in Croatia would not be returned to Yugoslavia although it is of Serbian origin, but would remain a part of the Croatian cultural heritage. On the other hand, it could be assumed that Croatia would insist on getting back cultural treasures of the Serbian Orthodox Church from Vukovar. Namely, those include iconostases from the churches in Babot, Miklusevci and Opatovci, icons that were taken to Novi Sad after the war, i.e. Petrovaradin, to be protected and repaired. In order to start negotiations with the Serbian Orthodox Church on this topic, Croatia would most probably have to assume the obligation of restoring all SPC buildings to their pre-war state. The good will of both sides could be detected in the statement of a SPC priest in Vukovar, Dusan Markovic, who said that cultural objects of that church - which have nothing to do with the Vukovar treasure - had been transferred to Vojvodina only to be protected and renovated, so that there were no special regulations nor problems preventing their return to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Vukovar after renovation.

With regard to the unburdening of relations between Croatia and Yugoslavia, signing of a number of inter-state agreements is under preparation, which should contribute to the establishment of good-neighbourly relations. Thus, for example, only a day after the signing and handover of Protocol on the return of Vukovar works and objects of art, Foreign Ministers of Croatia and FR Yugoslavia, Tonino Picula and Goran Svilanovic signed the Agreement on the Avoidance of Double Taxation and Protocol on cooperation between their two Ministries.

After the Friday (December 14) meeting the two Ministers concluded that they "a step further has been made in a number of areas which, nevertheless, remain yet to be regulated by agreements". This primarily concerns the Agreement on the Regulation of the Position of National Minorities (which despite years of Croatia's insistence, the FRY agreed to discuss only a few months ago), borders (which has finally moved from a deadlock since notes on members of joint commission for borders were exchanged at the mentioned meeting, whereby the commission was formally established). Apart from that, the two countries will speed up negotiations on the return of refugees, free trade, liberalisation of visa regime and improvement of transport communications. Also, Svilanovic announced that agreements on re-admittance and joint struggle against organised crime would be signed in January.

However, let us leave aside for a moment this diplomatic orgasm and go back to the pre-orgasmic stage when, for example, there had been no political rhetoric such as "developed bilateral relations between Zagreb and Belgrade have great political and economic potential for stabilising still sensitive political circumstances in the South-East Europe". Let us go back, for example, to last October when, due to the poor neighbourly relations, the Croatian side concluded a secret agreement with the Museum of the Holocaust in Washington. This Museum also signed the same agreement with the Republic of Srpska in a Mata-Hari-style in connection with the same problem: the archival materials from Jasenovac concentration camp. With that Agreement the Croatian side wanted to snatch the mentioned collection from the hands of the Republic of Srpska and bring it back to Croatia. In contrast to it, fearing that the denial of the fact that there had been Serbian victims in the Ustasha camp Jasenovac, the Republic of Srpska wanted to prevent their return to Croatia and therefore presented them to the US Holocaust Museum. However, since the controversial materials of the Memorial Museum in Jasenovac have, nevertheless, been returned to Croatia on December 5, it could be concluded that the Republic of Srpska got the short end of the stick.

During the handover of the materials, the Croatian Culture Minister, Antun Vujic expressed gratitude to all those who helped their return to Jasenovac, and pointed out that in future it would be a place for remembrance of the victims, as well as a place of warning for those who had committed those crimes.

After a year of study experts of the New York Museum of the Holocaust concluded that the following materials were missing from the archives: 450 documents, some thousand photographs, five thousand questionnaires of camp inmates (which were a part of the collection of news articles), five hundred objects and written memories, eight hundred documents, as well as 2,490 books from the Jasenovac Museum Library - and that was not all. Here we get back to the story of Croatian-Yugoslav relations because this missing part of the Jasenovac collection is in Belgrade. At least, according to the Croatian Minister Antun Vujic.

However, at the time of ecstatic diplomatic sagas on beauties of good-neighbourly love are being written, it is not desirable to seriously discuss such nor similar problems of property, e.g. tenant's rights. It is after all, (to paraphrase Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan) "the duty of politicians to restore relations without burdening the public with unrealistic expectations, trying at the same time to take advantage of this "new upturn" in the relations between Croatia and FRY at each next meeting". We hope that there will be no "new falls" in-between these "new upturns", i.e. that the international pressure for the establishment of regional cooperation will suppress our local nationalisms.

Ivana Erceg

(AIM)