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The Dynamics Of Apology And Forgiveness In The Balkans

A Muslim woman prays at the Potocari memorial cemetery, near Srebrenica, in March 2010.
A Muslim woman prays at the Potocari memorial cemetery, near Srebrenica, in March 2010.
From the Serbian parliament's resolution last month condemning the 1995 Srebrenica massacre to an unprecedented speech by Croatian President Ivo Josipovic in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Balkans has witnessed a wave of remorse and reflection that suggests renewed impetus for the cause of peace and reconciliation. Reactions to these specific events, however, have highlighted some of the difficulties that constrain often courageous attempts at apology and forgiveness, both of which are integral to efforts at transforming conflict in the region.

Croatia's recently elected President Josipovic, in an address to members of both houses of Bosnia's parliament, expressed his deep "regret that the Republic of Croatia...has contributed to the suffering of people and the divisions that still burden us today." He went on to criticize policies that are "based on the idea that division is the solution for Bosnia-Herzegovina, [and that] have sown an evil seed here, but also in their own countries." Josipovic also visited Ahmici, a village in central Bosnia where over 100 Bosniak civilians were killed by Bosnian Croat forces in 1993.

This gesture provoked a vociferous response from Croatia's prime minister, Jadranka Kosor, who condemned Josipovic's remarks and reiterated that "Croatia was never the aggressor...[and] the war was just and of a defensive character."

Several former prime ministers shared Kosor's indignation. Hrvoje Sarinic insisted that it is a "well-known fact that Croatia was not an aggressor in Bosnia-Herzegovina," and Franjo Greguric described suggestions that Croatia attempted to partition Bosnia as an "absolute lie...[that] brings great damage to Croatia and makes its international road harder."

These accumulated statements from key representatives of Croatia's political elite demonstrate the extent to which the country's role in the wars of the early 1990s remains largely unexplored domestically. A similar criticism applies to Croatia's World War II legacy, which James Bissett, the former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia, believes the country should publicly acknowledge through "authentic repudiation of the past" prior to joining the EU.

Silence 'Unacceptable'

Despite Serbia's adoption of the Srebrenica resolution, the authenticity of Serbia's apology has been openly and frequently questioned -- with various references to the failure to apprehend Ratko Mladic, the omission of the word genocide in the resolution, the tabling of a second resolution condemning all crimes in the former Yugoslavia, and suggestions that Serbia's primary motivation was improving its EU-membership prospects.

In an effort to reiterate Serbia's commitment to facing up to the past, Serbian President Boris Tadic has emphasized "silence is no longer acceptable, and neither is hiding behind outdated wartime rhetoric. The era of accountability in our part of the world has begun, and it is here to stay."

Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Serbia's Srebrenica resolution, Sulejman Tihic, the leader of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the largest Bosniak party, called on Bosnia-Herzegovina's parliament to adopt a similar resolution apologizing for crimes against Serbs and Croats. Tihic, however, was later forced to concede that it is "not realistic at this time to condemn crimes against Serbs, since parliament has not yet taken care of the issue of a declaration on Srebrenica, as a prerequisite for any other kind of declaration."

Blind To Ethnicity

In a similar vein, Josipovic announced that he would "certainly visit those places in Bosnia-Herzegovina where Serbs suffered...[as] victims are victims to me, and criminals are criminals regardless of ethnicity." Such ethnicity-blind approaches to recognizing the victims -- and punishing the perpetrators -- of crimes in the former Yugoslavia provide the most concrete way of achieving mutual understanding of attitudes about the region's past, present, and future.

These instances of remorse and reflection -- and the vehement reactions to them -- epitomize the difficulties of securing broadly recognized and legitimate forgiveness and apology in the Balkans. The role of the region's political elites in this process raises important questions about whether acts of forgiveness or apology can be made on behalf of entire ethno-national groups, particularly where many members of a "group" or "community" do not seek forgiveness nor to apologize, or when members of another do not wish to forgive.

These conundrums of forgiveness and apology require a sustained debate -- founded on mutual recognition, regardless of ethnicity -- that involves those often neglected and maligned voices. The political elites of each country in the region have a responsibility to facilitate this process to ensure that seemingly intractable conflicts can finally be overcome.

Ian Bancroft is the cofounder of
TransConflict, an organization undertaking conflict- and postconflict-transformation projects and research throughout the Western Balkans. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL