Serbia’s Honest Apology

On Tuesday, the Serbian Parliament passed a resolution condemning the massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica in July 1995, soon after Bosnian Serb forces conquered the town.

The reactions to the resolution, however, have been shockingly churlish and cynical. Some, especially but not only Bosnian Muslims, have complained that the resolution was worthless because it talks only of a “crime” and a “tragedy,” not a “genocide.” Others say Serbia’s government pushed this resolution through merely to curry favor with the European Union, which it desperately wants to join.

Such responses, however, fail to account for the deep divisions in the Serbian Parliament and public, between the supporters of the resolution and those who deny any responsibility for the massacre. Indeed, in Serbia as anywhere else, politics is the art of the possible, and that the resolution was proposed at all is an achievement.

The Srebrenica massacre was the single worst crime of the Bosnian war — indeed, it was the single worst war crime in Europe since 1945. It was also one of the final acts of the conflict; four months later the leaders of the exhausted Muslims, Serbs and Croats were corralled onto an airbase in Dayton, Ohio, where they signed a deal ending the fighting. Bosnia remains a deeply divided and dysfunctional country, but the peace has held.

The resolution is yet another step toward putting the ghosts of Srebrenica to rest. With two exceptions — Ratko Mladic, the commander of Bosnian Serb forces during the war, and Goran Hadzic, a leader of rebel Serbs in Croatia — every single person indicted by the United Nations’ war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, including those who carried out the massacre, has had to face justice in The Hague.

Moreover, the tribunal has ruled that the massacre at Srebrenica constituted genocide. In 2007 the International Court of Justice agreed — although, notably, it stopped short of blaming Serbia, saying instead that Belgrade’s responsibility lay in failing to prevent the killings by the Bosnian Serb forces which it supported and supplied.

The idea of passing a resolution in the Serbian Parliament on Srebrenica is not new, nor is the idea of recognizing the massacre. Five years ago Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, went to Srebrenica to pay homage to the victims. He did not take responsibility for the killings in the name of Serbia, but the visit was nevertheless a brave act: Many other Serbs either deny that a terrible crime was committed in their name at Srebrenica, or they shrug and say that horrible things were done during the conflict to Serbs as well, and that nobody talks of apologizing for them.

Tuesday’s resolution was hardly unanimous — it passed with just 127 votes in the 250-member Parliament, and many of its opponents stood fast to the nationalist rhetoric of the 1990s. Like many Serbs, they demanded a resolution condemning all crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, especially those against Serbs.

The resolution, therefore, is a political landmark. And even if it fails to mention “genocide,” it makes it still harder to insist that the massacre never happened or that the number of victims has been grossly inflated.

Yet the Serbian government finds itself caught in a position of being damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Belgrade had done nothing, Serbs would continue to be accused of not facing up to the past. But now that it has done something, it is being accused of acting out of ulterior motives. That is a shame. This resolution is a lot better than nothing — and a lot more than other countries have offered for heinous crimes committed in their names.

Tim Judah, the Balkans correspondent for The Economist and the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia.