Serbia’s President has apologized for crimes committed "in the name of Serbia" during the Bosnian war. He stopped short of speaking of "genocide". The reactions in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been far from enthusiastic.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic is making headlines again. Shortly after he took office in May 2012, he caused outrage when he said "there was no genocide in Srebrenica". He has now apologized for the massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the east-Bosnian town of Srebrenica at the hands of Bosnian-Serb groups in July 1995.
In an interview aired on Thursday evening for Bosnian television channel BHT1, Nikolic said "I kneel and ask for forgiveness for Serbia for the crime committed in Srebrenica." But again he stopped short of calling the massacre a genocide, despite it being ruled as such by international courts. Individual perpetrators were to blame for the crime, and not the Serbian state, Nikolic continued.
A positive signal
People in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina now wonder what it was the President actually said, or wanted to say. It seems he was being vague and ambivalent on purpose. That allows for different interpretations, depending on the recipients' political orientation and necessities in their political daily lives.
In Serbia, to some, the glass is half-empty. Others see it as half-full. Civil rights activist Natasha Kandic stresses the importance of the verbal act of kneeling. "Nobody has ever said anything like it in Serbia. We know that from Willy Brandt and that's what makes his apology so important," said the founder of the Serbian human rights organization 'Fund for Humanitarian Rights' in an interview with DW. It wasn't that crucial whether he actually said the word genocide or not, Kandic said. And you had to "see his statements in conjunction with his own past," Kandic stressed.
In the past, Nikolic appeared to be more of an ultranationalist. He denied all Serbian war crimes and objected to the extradition of former Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian-Serb army chief Ratko Mladic to the war crime tribunal in The Hague.
But Serbia hopes to join the European Union. That's why Nikolic has for a while been using a more moderate and EU-friendly language. That's also the case with the apology, says well-known human rights activist and lawyer, Srda Popovic. "This apology was made in the context of upcoming negotiations of Serbia with the EU. I don't believe that was meant in an honest way. It's merely political maneuvering and serves a political purpose." That's why Popovic is worried "that this apology may not be received as being meant in an honest way."
Verbal act of kneeling
In the capital Belgrade posters appeared insulting President Tomislav Nikolic as a traitor to the nation
The first reactions from Bosnia and Herzegovina confirm this. Hardly anybody in Serbia's neighboring country was convinced by what the Serbian president said. During the interview, he was long avoiding a clear statement and his body language told viewers the opposite of what he was saying about the committed crimes, about how inhumane the perpetrators had behaved and about the kneeling act that only happened verbally.
Munira Subasic, president of the Mothers of Srebrenica association, which groups families of the victims, said she was "not convinced" of Nikolic's sincerity. It was not about someone kneeling and asking for forgiveness, she said. What the relatives of the victims of the war crimes needed, she said, was sincerity and true remorse. And they wanted to "hear the Serbian president and Serbia say the word ‘genocide'," she said, adding that stealing a handbag would also classify as "crime".
Tadic, in 2010, laying a wreath for the Croatian victims of war
Just like the victims' representatives, politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina are also keeping their distance. Dragan Cavic from the Democratic Party in the Republic of Srpska, the Serbian part of Bosnia, sees the interview as an attempt by Bosnia to "ease the relationship with the Bosnian (Muslim) top politicians." Croatian member of the Bosnian-Herzoginan presidency, Zelko Komsic, replied in written form and said he hoped Nikolic' statement would "help improve relationships in the region."
Some of this restraint results from the fact that Nikolic is not the first top politician in the region to apologize for the war crime committed by Serbs against Bosnian Muslims. Boris Tadic, his predecessor, made his apology back in 2004, during a trip to Sarajevo. Three years later, he apologized to Croats for war crimes committed against them.
Croatian president Ivo Yosipovic followed his example a short while later and apologized to Bosnians and to Serbs alike for some crimes. Those gestures haven't meant a true catharsis for the region. Instead, the politicians always referred to individual war crimes. To their audience, they hardly ever sounded credible, or don't represent the majority of society. In other words: There is still no "Willy Brandt of the Balkans" in sight, who knelt in Poland to honor the victims of Nazi Germany.