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16 Nov 10

Comment: Sorry Is Still The Hardest Word in Bosnia

While leaders of Serbia and Croatia forge ahead with reconciliation, the process remains mired in Bosnia because the war there is not yet ‘past history’.

Florian Bieber

The historic visit of Serbian President Boris Tadic to Vukovar and his apology for the crimes that the Yugoslav Army committed in the eastern Croatian town is the latest of a series of steps that leaders of former Yugoslavia have taken towards reconciliation.

This is not the first apology for war crimes or conciliatory gesture in the region. The process began when the Montenegrin leader, Milo Djukanovic, apologized in 2000 for his country's role in the siege of the Croatian city of Dubrovnik.

Croatia’s President, Ivo Josipovic, has been key to transforming the atmosphere in relations across the region recently. His visit to Bosnia earlier this year, and his commemoration of the Serbian victims of the war in Croatia at Paulin Dvor, have re-energized the reconciliation process and encouraged his Serbian counterpart to do likewise.

Further evidence of the change of atmosphere in the region is the recent apology of Bakir Izetbegovic, the newly-elected Bosniak [Muslim] member of the Bosnian presidency, for the crimes committed by the mainly Muslim Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, apologies and gestures of reconciliation remain rare in Bosnia and Herzegovina, begging the question of why most such initatives tend to come from outside Bosnia, even though most victims of the ex-Yugoslav wars come from there.

The answer is that dealing with the past and apologizing for crimes committed by states or in the name of a nation require two factors: the right political circumstances and couragous leaders.

In Croatia and Serbia, the wars are part of the past. They remain controversial but the fighting has long since concluded. In Bosnia, on the other hand, the past is very much alive. The 1995 Dayton peace deal ended the war there but did not resolve the very different visions of the country held by the Bosniak, Croat and Serbian elites.

Thus, the war has real implications for political life in Bosnia even today.

There is still a fear among Bosnia's elites that admitting to war crimes could de-legitimize them. In the Bosnian Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, the local elite fears that admitting to the crimes committed during the establishment of the Republika Srpska could jeopardize its very survival.

Bosniak politicians are equally reluctant to admit that the Bosnian army committeed crimes because this undermines the Muslims' status as principal victims of the 1992-5 war. The Croats in Bosnia worry that their current marginalized status would be justified if they admitted responsibility for crimes.

Bosnia lacks an elite with the courage to admit the need to overcome nationalist narratives and take a step towards other communities. Elections are still won there by each group emphasising its national identity and remaining on the defensive.

As long as the political atmosphere remains as poisonous as it has done for the past four years - as long as there is no willingness to compromise in order to make the state function better and overcome political divisions - it will be hard to address the past.

Unblocking this stalemate will take courage. Izetbegovic’s recent gesture is a welcome one. But the overall atmosphere in the country gives little hope that new regional dynamics will bear fruit there any time soon.


Dr Florian Bieber is Professor for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz.

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