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Balkans: When Is It Time To Apologize?

Earlier this year, the presidents of Croatia and the union-state of Serbia and Montenegro surprised everyone when they expressed mutual regret for atrocities committed on both sides during the Balkan wars in the early 1990s. Svetozar Marovic, the president of Serbia and Montenegro, later apologized to the citizens of Bosnia as well. But in Kosovo, an international call for similar expressions of regret have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Prague, 5 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "I want to apologize for all the evils that any citizen of Serbia and Montenegro inflicted upon or committed against any citizen of Croatia."

Serbia and Montenegro's President Svetozar Marovic caught his Croatian counterpart Stipe Mesic completely by surprise when he offered this apology during Mesic's October visit to Belgrade.

Mesic gracefully accepted the unexpected apology and offered one of his own: "I accept this symbolic apology. In my name, I also apologize to all those who have suffered pain or damage at any time from the citizens of Croatia who misused the law or abused their position. I said, at any time."

It was not the first time Balkan leaders have expressed regret for the suffering and brutality of the conflicts.

Bosnia's wartime president, the late Alija Izetbegovic, apologized three years ago for war crimes committed by Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, against Serbs and Croats. Montenegro's then-president, Milo Djukanovic, also offered his regrets to Croatians, and in particular to the people of Dubrovnik, which was attacked by Yugoslav forces in 1991.

But such gestures are not always appreciated. In the case of Marovic and Mesic, the mutual apologies got a far-from-unanimous welcome.

In Croatia, nationalists said Mesic's words were inappropriate, and that it was "dishonorable" to apologize for a war fought in the name of Croatia's independence.

In Serbia and Montenegro, meanwhile, some said it was not for Marovic -- himself a Montenegrin -- to do something no Serbian president had done.

Even those who welcomed the apologies said that the war crimes and atrocities committed by the regimes of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia's late nationalist president Franjo Tudjman could not, and should not, be reduced to "evils" inflicted by unnamed citizens of one country on those of another.

Undeterred, Marovic again offered his apologies during a recent visit to Sarajevo. Bosnian leaders said the act was a "civil gesture" -- but that much more was needed before it would really make a difference in regional relations.

Franz-Lothar Altmann is a political analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. He says that despite the sometimes cool reception, the apologies were a very important and necessary step toward reconciliation.

"I think it was a very necessary step and the next steps should follow. So, for example, parliament should sign resolutions supporting those reconciliation attempts. And then, of course, reconciliation must happen on the ground. But as first steps, I think, this was very positive," Altmann said.

In Kosovo, even this first step, for now, seems impossible.

Harri Holkeri, the head of the UN mission in Kosovo, noted Marovic's expression of regret this week in Sarajevo. He said that a "similar mutual acceptance of responsibility for what happened in Kosovo would do much to ease the tension in Kosovo and in Serbia."

Holkeri went on to say that "there would be fewer obstacles in the way of reconciliation if Kosovo were not used as a nationalist chip in Serbia's domestic policy."

The statements infuriated officials in Belgrade. Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, the cabinet minister tasked with issues relating to Kosovo, said "because of the timing and the tone" of the comments, Holkeri owed Serbia an apology.

"Holkeri's statement, made at this time and in this tone, means that a part of the international community is convinced that the situation in Serbia is difficult enough, that democratic parties are totally divided and in conflict, and that the time has come to carry out someone's mean plan to complete the Albanization of Kosovo and Metohija. Because of the timing and the tone, Holkeri owes an apology to democratic Serbia," Covic said.

Kosovar deputies said that since ethnic Albanians had not, "in an institutionalized way," committed any crimes, there was no need for them to offer apologies for something that Serbia had inflicted on Kosovo's Albanians.