Serbia, Croatia and the Question of Reconcilliation

On 4 November 2010, Serbian President Boris Tadic paid a historic visit to Croatia. More specifically, Tadic visited Vukovar, the infamous site of battle in the Croatian war of 1991-1995. During his visit, Tadic became the first Serbian leader to publicly and officially apologise for the murder of 260 Croats by Serb forces in 1991. Tadic stated he wished to ‘share words of apology, to express our sympathy, to create the possibility for Serbs and Croats…to turn a new page in history.;

Tadic’s visit was deemed to be so monumental that it was broadcast by all major news agencies, including the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Associated Press. European leaders heaped praise on Tadic’s apology, and observers commented that this could be the long-awaited start of a difficult reconciliation process between the two countries.

In Serbia however, Tadic’s apology has received a mixed reaction. Mainstream media outlets and internet commentators have been quick to point out that ‘other’ sides have not responded in a satisfactory manner to the war crimes committed against Serb civilians in 1991-1995, and as a result, Tadic should not extend any apologies in this regard.

Tadic’s apology follows the Serbian Parliament’s April 2010 ‘Declaration on Srebrenica’, a much discussed piece of legislature condemning the Srebrenica massacre – the first such act that Serbia has delivered unequivocally. Prior to this, official Serbia has been slow to recognize acts of war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, save for visits to the Srebrenica commemoration and an apology to Bosnian Muslims by President Tadic (which had no parliamentary backing), and a handful of attempts by liberally minded MPs to push through legislation.  There have been suggestions that Serbia’s recent attempts at transitional justice, as well as the 2008 arrest of long time fugitive and Hague indictee Radovan Karadzic, have only been carried out as a result of international pressure and Serbia’s EU integration hopes. With this, there is also an implications that Serbia is a country ‘stuck in the past’ and unable to move on from its nationalist legacy, which may be true for some more extreme political parties, but applied to Serbia as a whole, this oversimplifies a very complex process of reconciliation.

Furthermore, as most scholars on reconciliation and transitional justice would point out, the process of understanding atrocities of the past and bringing the perpetrators to justice involves all sectors of the society. Hence, legislation and presidential apologies are not enough to kick-start a process of reconciliation, which must also take place within the civil society. However, considering Serbia’s difficulties with the question of war crimes and reconciliation in general, and its previous reluctance to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in particular, the recent declaration and apology do mean a lot.

Since the assassination of reform-oriented prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003, Serbia has lacked a leader with both vision and capability of taking forward the war crimes question. President Tadic, who has for a long time lacked influence and power needed to not only arrest fugitive war criminals but also to open the war crimes debate, has finally been able to use his position to influence the course of reconciliation.   Although all sectors of civil society do need to be in broad agreement about the aims of reconciliation for this to be a meaningful process, the Serbian civil society at last has a leading figure for this exercise.  This kind of reconciliation may at the moment be motivated by EU integration, but as long as political leaders in the country are keeping the war crimes question visible and active in Serbia, this is not an altogether detrimental process.

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