(RFE/RL) -- After a heated debate, the Serbian parliament has approved a landmark resolution condemning the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, ending years of denial.
The declaration, which condemns the massacre -- but stops short of calling it a genocide -- and offers an apology to the victims, was adopted with a narrow majority of 127 votes of the 250-seat parliament.
It also stressed the importance of arresting Ratko Mladic, the fugitive general who commanded Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica and has been indicted by the UN's war crimes tribunal on charges of genocide.
Ruling coalition member Nenad Canak, leader of the League of Social Democrats, said after the vote that there is still much work for Serbs to do about war crimes that were committed in their name during the 1990s. "The declaration that we just voted on in the Serbian parliament is just the beginning, simply because the subject of this declaration is the tip of the iceberg of the past that we have to confront," Canak said. "This war crime we can't leave to the future generations."
The contentious vote followed a painful reopening of a chapter of Serbia's recent past. Bosnian Serb troops and Serbian paramilitary forces killed some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the UN-protected enclave in July 1995 -- the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
With Serbia seeking to join the European Union, a resolution that took two months to write was proposed to highlight Belgrade's efforts to come to terms with atrocities committed in the name of Serbs during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Nada Kolundzija, parliamentary leader of the ruling Democratic Party, told lawmakers during the debate on March 30 that Belgrade must show the world it has distanced itself from the crimes that were committed during the 1990s. "What we have to do today is say that Serbia does not stand behind those who committed this crime, Serbia does not discriminate between victims, Serbia equally appreciates every victims, expressing, first of all, deep empathy for the victims of others," Kolundzija said.
'Crime Of Genocide'
But many Serbs still deny the Srebrenica massacre, despite recognition by the United Nations and the European Union that the killings were an act of genocide.
The wording of the resolution expresses sympathy for Srebrenica's victims and apologizes for not doing enough to prevent the massacre, but it does not call the killings genocide.
Instead, it condemns "the crime as it is described" in a 2009 European Parliamentary resolution, which -- along with a 2007 ruling by the International Court of Justice, uses the word "genocide" to describe the Srebrenica killings.
Radoslav Stojanovic, a professor of international law in Belgrade, tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service that such international resolutions and rulings allow Serbian lawmakers to acknowledge Srebrenica as "genocide" without actually using the word "genocide" themselves.
"Because the International Court of Justice in its ruling of 2007 held that the crimes that took place in Srebrenica were genocide, therefore in our declaration we don't have to worry or to invent a qualification for the crime in Srebrenica," Stojanovic says. "We only need to quote the ruling of the International Court of Justice, in which it is clearly stated that the crime that was committed in Srebrenica was a crime of genocide."
Jelena Trivan, a member of parliament from President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party, told RFE/RL ahead of the March 30 debate that some Serbs were in denial about the killings at Srebrenica -- five years after Tadic himself paid tribute to the victims.
"This is because we live in a country where [even] broadcasting of a film about Srebrenica in 2005 led to demands for the management of the television station to be punished for showing the truth about Srebrenica," Trivan said. "Because Boris Tadic was almost lynched because he apologized and bowed to the victims of Srebrenica."
In the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is strong opposition to recognizing Srebrenica as genocide or apologizing for the killings there. Many Bosnian Serbs say their community also suffered from war crimes committed by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats.
Among them is Slavko Jovicic, a member of the Bosnian parliament from the People's Social Democratic Party of Republika Srpska's Prime Minister Milorad Dodik. Jovicic says that the draft resolution actually exacerbates tensions in the Balkans instead of moving the region toward reconciliation.
"I have the right to say openly, on behalf of the victims from my people, that as long as I am here -- and I hope other colleagues, too -- that this cannot be adopted. That is not possible," Jovicic says. "I know from numerous contacts with voters in Republika Srpska what they have told me. Even if another 15 years pass, maybe another parliament will have more strength and maybe some new truth will come out that will bring our positions closer. I am certain that we will not achieve peace [by adopting this resolution]. We are going toward new conflicts and confrontations of an unforeseeable magnitude."
'No Words Can Describe'
Meanwhile, even a Serbian apology would be little comfort for Bosnian Muslims like Ilijas Pilav, a Sarajevo surgeon who survived the July 1995 attack by escaping through the woods. Along with thousands of other Muslim men and boys, he had trekked for six days and nights through wilderness before reaching safety.
Pilav told Reuters it was "an experience that no words can describe," one that has left deep traces on his life that "no amount of time and no political declaration can ease."
Janja Bec, a Serbian human rights activist who lectures on genocide at universities, says Belgrade is taking a step forward to even talk about the Srebrenica killings. She says that "denial" is the final stage of genocide. But she also says the failure of the Serbian parliament to use the word "genocide" could inflame tensions in the Balkans.
"This is so insulting that it could badly influence the relations in the region," Bec says. "Not only now, but for the next several generations. A crime like this deserves the recognition that it really took place."
The Srebrenica massacre was carried out by Bosnian Serb soldiers and Serbian paramilitaries under the command of Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime army chief. Mladic is now a fugitive from international law who has been indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
When Mladic led the Bosnian Serb onslaught against the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica, he entered the town accompanied by Serbian camera crews, declaring Srebrenica as a "gift to Serbs" and a kind of retaliation for the conquest of Bosnia by the Ottoman Turkish empire.
The European Union has made the capture and extradition of Mladic to The Hague tribunal a condition for progress in Belgrade's accession bid. Many people think he is hiding in Serbia with the help of Belgrade officials.
written by Ron Synovitz, with reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service