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The Weight Of Wreaths And Words

Serbian President Boris Tadic pays his respects to the more than 200 victims killed by Belgrade-led troops in 1991 near Vukovar, Croatia.
Serbian President Boris Tadic pays his respects to the more than 200 victims killed by Belgrade-led troops in 1991 near Vukovar, Croatia.
The people of Belgrade euphorically took to the streets in the fall of 1991 to shower the soldiers and tanks of the Yugoslav Army with flowers as they made off for Vukovar, Croatia. The city was then demolished, and victory was declared.

On November 4, 19 years later, Serbian President Boris Tadic came to Vukovar and laid a wreath at the Ovcara memorial, which honors 260 Croats slain there by Serbian forces. Most of them were people who had been hauled from a destroyed hospital and executed.

Tadic said he had come to "pay respects to the victims" and "once again offer words of apology and regret." Tadic and his Croatian counterpart, Ivo Josipovic, laid wreaths in the nearby village of Paulin Dvor, as well. There, 19 civilians, all but one of them Serbs, were killed by Croatian forces in 1991.

According to public opinion polls, 60 percent of Vukovar residents support Tadic's visit. The tone of media reports in both Croatia and Serbia has also contributed to the warming of relations between the two countries.

String Of Apologies

The recent wave of apologies in the Balkans is not limited to Serbia and Croatia. Last week, Bakir Izetbegovic, the newly elected Bosniak member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's tripartite presidency, apologized for “every innocent man killed by the Bosnian Army.”

The trend began back in 2000, when Montenegrin President Milan Djukanovic apologized for his country's role in the 1991 shelling of the Croatian coastal city of Dubrovnik.

Since then, the Serbian and Croat presidents have exchanged apologies in 2003, and Tadic apologized to the residents of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in 2004 for Serbian atrocities committed there. The Serbian leader made a similar apology in the Croatian capital Zagreb in 2007. The Croatian president has also offered an apology at the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp, where tens of thousands of people, many of them Serbs, were killed during World War II.

In addition to apologies, there have also been conciliatory political and judicial actions.

The Serbian parliament has adopted a resolution on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Croatia has offered to assist Serbia in its bid to join the European Union.

A Balkan Sirocco

Despite this virtuous cycle, something is still missing in the Balkans.

If the Serbian president lays a wreath for 260 Croats, he must quickly go to do the same for 19 Serbian victims.

If the Serbian parliament adopts a resolution on the Srebrenica genocide, it must quickly adopt another one about crimes committed against Serbs.

On the eve of Tadic's visit to Vukovar, his foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, went to Banja Luka to show support for Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity.

Officially, Belgrade says it supports Bosnia's sovereignty, but at the same time it backs Republika Srpska's Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, who appears determined to split the country apart.

This balmy Balkan “sirocco” is, of course, welcome. Warmer relations could only benefit all Balkan countries.

But all the wreaths and words do not truly compensate for the flowers in the streets of Belgrade back in 1991.

The fact is that the number of all Serb civilians killed during the four years of the war by Bosnian forces is lower than the number of Bosniaks killed in Srebrenica by Serbian forces in one hour alone.

Serbia cannot hide forever behind the “we are all guilty” kind of statements that Belgrade favors, simply because “we” are not. The responsibility is not the same.

The Action Of Apology

It is easy to apologize in Vukovar. It is harder -- but more important -- to arrest Goran Hadzic, who has been indicted for war crimes for his role in the killings, and extradite him to The Hague, which Belgrade is either unable or unwilling to do.

It is easy to build up better relations with neighbors. But it would be more significant to hold the people whose crimes spoiled those relations accountable before the law.

It is easy to have war crimes trials in Serbia for those who were pulling the triggers. But true reconciliation will not be possible until those who gave the orders are in the dock.

Fifteen years have passed since the war ended, and Serbia, apparently, is not yet ready to take this approach. In addition, there is still one apology from Serbia the region needs to hear -- to the people of Kosovo -- which will be the most difficult one for Belgrade to make.

Serbia still does not have its Willy Brandt.

Tadic in Vukovar on November 4, 2010 represents the moderate Serbia that accepts responsibility for the wars. Jeremic in Banja Luka, at the eve of Tadic's visit represents the Serbia that started the wars.

The two Serbias are still marching in parallel, and the moderate one might be winning for the time being. The Balkan sirocco is still weak. But, it is there.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.