Prague, 10 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Stipe Mesic and Svetozar Marovic, the presidents of Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro, today offered a joint apology for what Marovic called "all the evils" committed by their countries during the bloody 1991-95 breakup of Yugoslavia, in which tens of thousands of people died.
Mesic is in Belgrade today on an historic one-day visit to Serbia and Montenegro aimed at improving ties after years of tension. It is the first presidential visit between the two neighbor countries since Croatia declared independence in 1991 from then-Yugoslavia.
Mesic and Marovic held a news conference after their one-hour meeting. It was Marovic who initiated the surprise apology in his statement: "I want to apologize for all the evils that any citizen of Serbia and Montenegro inflicted upon or committed against any citizen of Croatia."
Mesic accepted the apology, and in turn offered his regrets for crimes committed by Croats "at any time" -- a remark interpreted as including crimes committed by Croat fascists against Serbs during World II: "I accept this symbolic apology. In my name, I also apologize to all those who have suffered pain or damage at any time from citizens of Croatia who misused the law or abused their position. I said, at any time."
For Mesic, the visit and the apologies bore additional symbolism since he was the last leader of Yugoslavia's collective presidency before the 1991 breakup.
Aside from the unexpected mutual apologies, the official agenda of the visit focused on bilateral and regional relations, abolition of visas and economic cooperation, as well as the two countries' prospects for membership in both the European Union and NATO.
Mesic also met separately with Acting Serbian President Natasa Micic, Parliament Chairman Dragoljub Micunovic, Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic, and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic.
Although the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1996 -- just one year after the wars ended -- relations remained cold until after the death of Croatian strongman Franjo Tudjman in 1999 and the fall of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime in 2000.
Ties have been improving -- albeit slowly -- over the past three years, after reform-oriented governments came to power in both countries. One major step was taken this summer, when the two countries mutually eased visa, trade, and border restrictions. Earlier this week, commercial air traffic between Zagreb and Belgrade was resumed for the first time since 1991.
Both countries are eyeing EU and NATO membership, and good bilateral ties are essential for achieving this goal, along with improved cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), which is pursuing suspects on their territories.
In October last year, Mesic testified against Milosevic at the UN war crimes tribunal as the first head of state to give evidence against the ex-Yugoslav leader.
Marovic today said during his news conference with Mesic that "in the name of the past which cannot be forgotten," Belgrade and Zagreb "must work together so anyone who is individually guilty will face the law," a reference likely to signal Belgrade's openness to improved cooperation not only with the ICTY, but also with Zagreb.
Croatia is more advanced economically than Serbia and Montenegro and its prospects of joining the EU are better. But the one major issue for Zagreb in its relations with the European Union and with Belgrade remains the return of ethnic Serb refugees to Croatia.
After proclaiming independence, Croatia fought its rebel Serbian minority, which was supported by the Yugoslav army and Belgrade. Almost 300,000 ethnic Serbs fled Croatia during and after the conflict. Only around 100,000 have returned so far, but many have reportedly stayed only a short time before returning to Serbia.
Croatia has been under increasing pressure to speed up the return of the refugees both from Belgrade and the international community. Mesic today said that "open issues still exist" between the two countries -- a likely reference to the refugee problem.
He added that there will be "no faster improvement of the relations between Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro without solving these painful and difficult issues."
Mesic has repeatedly stressed his commitment to facilitating the return of Serbian refugees. Before the visit, on 9 September, he told reporters he intended to bring up the Serbian refugees' situation during his visit to Belgrade, along with issues such as the situation of persons gone missing during the war, and the restitution of Croatian property and assets in Serbia and Montenegro.
Mesic's office has also said that the president wants to resolve the problem of Serbian refugees, not only to fulfill a condition for Croatia's integration in the EU, but also to prove that his country is "a mature democracy."
Mesic today is also scheduled to meet representatives of ethnic Serbian refugees from Croatia, as well as leaders of the Croatian National Council, the organization of the ethnic Croatian minority in Serbia.