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Dividing as it unites

When Serbian president Boris Tadic shook hands with Croatian counterpart Stjepan Mesic at a Euromoney conference last month, the sense of history was palpable. This was the first time these two heads of states had met. It was also the first time that a Serbian president had visited Dubrovnik since the historic Croatian port city was badly damaged by shelling during the Yugoslav civil war in October 1991.

Poignantly, the conference hotel had been used as a headquarters by the Serb and Montenegrin forces besieging Dubrovnik all those years ago – a siege lifted after Mesic himself (at the time nominally still president of Yugoslavia) played out a high-stakes confrontation with the blockading Yugoslav navy, in full view of the world's press.

But if the past lay all about, Mesic and Tadic were keen to stress the future. Both used their speeches to underline the need for economic reform and, above all, EU membership.

That's where the similarities ended. Croatia's Mesic heads a country where those mantras are etched into national thinking, while Tadic cuts a sometimes lonely figure.

His reformist presidency is locked in uneasy cohabitation with a governing coalition where nationalism all too often trumps liberalism.

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