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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 17:29 GMT
Belgrade's cautious apology

Gabriel Partos
BBC's South-east Europe analyst

The President of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic, has apologised to Bosnia-Hercegovina for any evil that anyone from his country has caused to its neighbour during the bloody war there that ended eight years ago.

Mr Marovic surprised many observers back in September when he conveyed his apologies to Croats during a meeting in Belgrade with the Croatian President, Stipe Mesic.

President of Serbia and Montenegro Svetozar Marovic (right) and  Muslim member of Bosnian tripartite Presidency Suleiman Tihic
Mr Marovic (right) uses his words carefully
His expression of regrets followed repeated refusals by his predecessor, the more nationalist Vojislav Kostunica, to express his apology - arguing that all sides, and not just the Serbs, were to blame for the wars.

After Mr Marovic's unexpected words, the Croatian head of state responded immediately by making his own apology to Serbs.

This time there was no element of surprise. Mr Marovic had told the media in advance of his visit to Sarajevo that he was willing express his regrets to the people of Bosnia.


As for the apology itself, which Mr Marovic has now made in Sarajevo, the formulation was remarkably similar to the one he made to Mr Mesic.

He said he was apologising for what he called "any evil or disaster" that anyone from his country had caused to anyone in Bosnia.

The phrasing of this apology - as the previous one in Belgrade - had very consciously been drafted in such a way as to stress individual responsibility for crimes.

In other words, Mr Marovic was drawing a distinction between on the one hand, the actions of Serbia and Montenegro - previously known as Yugoslavia - as a state; and on the other hand the actions of individuals, however high positions those individuals may have occupied.

And he repeatedly emphasised that it was individuals who had committed crimes.

That is certainly the case - and it is an argument that is put into practice every day in The Hague at the international war crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

But while guilt may be an individual matter, broader responsibility is usually attached to institutions, often the state. That is why democratic post-war Germany has been paying compensation to the victims of the Nazi Third Reich.

High risk

Indeed, the reason why Mr Marovic is so careful in using his words is perhaps to avoid prejudicing his country's case before another tribunal in The Hague - at the International Court of Justice.

Serbia and Montenegro is facing separate court actions from Bosnia and Croatia for genocide and war crimes. So far it has failed to persuade both its former adversaries to drop the legal action - which in Bosnia's case was launched 10 years ago.

Any admission of guilt on behalf of the state - as against crimes committed by individuals - could be used in evidence against Belgrade by Sarajevo and Zagreb.

That in turn could lead to a Court ruling against Belgrade, requiring it to pay huge compensation. That's a risk Serbia and Montenegro can't afford to take.

But while the language of Mr Marovic's apologies remains legalistic, there is no doubt that his willingness to express his regrets is helping to improve Belgrade's relations with its neighbours.

Belgrade apology for Bosnia war
13 Nov 03  |  Europe

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