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Serbs divided over Srebrenica apology

31 March 10 12:14 GMT

By Mark Lowen
BBC News, Belgrade

It is hard to find a subject that divides opinion among Serbs as much as the wars of the 1990s.

Some say their nation must face the past in order to move on and achieve genuine reconciliation.

But many still believe Serbs have been unjustly demonised in the history books, portrayed by the West as the main aggressor, while the other sides are painted as the victims.

The resolution on the Srebrenica massacre narrowly passed by Serbia's parliament on Tuesday night goes to the very heart of that division.

The text condemns the murder of more than 7,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) by Bosnian Serb soldiers in 1995 and apologises for Serbia's failure to prevent the tragedy.

It is a highly significant move here, after widespread denial in Serbia for several years over the massacre.

That began to change in 2005, when a video was uncovered showing members of a Serbian paramilitary group executing Bosniaks.

It horrified the public and, for the first time, prompted trials in Belgrade of those associated with Srebrenica.

Softened the blow?

But nationalism remains a potent force here, and any move which deals with crimes committed by Serbs faces stiff opposition.

Although Srebrenica has been labelled as "genocide" by the United Nations, the word was omitted from the resolution by the governing coalition in an attempt to gain broader support.

It may have softened the blow but all MPs from the nationalist opposition either rejected the resolution or abstained from voting.

"Serbia will sign its own guilt with this declaration," said Slobodan Samardzic, a member of the DSS opposition party.

Others called the move "shameful".

Nationalist parties reject the numbers of those killed in Srebrenica, instead demanding public hearings to, as they call it, "establish the truth".

Facing the past

For the governing Democratic Party and its coalition partners, the resolution is a crucial part of the new image that Serbia is trying to present as it strives for EU membership.

"The European Union was established by the idea of reconciliation between peoples and I believe this region has the same potential," Democrat MP Konstantin Samofalov told the BBC.

"It has to work this way. The resolution is for the sake of our future generations."

Nenad Canak, a member of the ruling coalition called it "only the tip of the iceberg of the past that we must face".

Among the survivors in Bosnia, the reaction has been mixed.

Seen as a step in the right direction by some, others are furious that the text fails to mention "genocide".

"Without that," says Srebrenica survivor Ilijaz Pilav, "the resolution will not serve its purpose. It's yet another humiliation for the victims."

But this is still the first time that the massacre has been formally recognised by the Serbian state.

Sonja Biserko from the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights believes the government was constrained by the nationalists in how far it could go.

"This was the maximum that could be delivered right now," she says.

"But I worry that the government was motivated more by pressure from the EU than by a genuine feeling of remorse."

Bumpy EU path

There has, indeed, been strong encouragement for the move from the wider European community.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband publicly backed the resolution on his blog and various Western diplomats in Belgrade have long voiced their support.

It may well nudge Serbia forward on its long and bumpy path to EU membership, but serious obstacles remain.

The most significant is Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader indicted by The Hague tribunal for ordering the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes, though still at large.

He is known to have been in Serbia until as little as three years ago, and many still believe he is hiding here.

Until Serbia apprehends General Mladic, Brussels says the door to membership will remain closed.

'Something horrible'

For the wider public, the resolution exposed the ongoing splits.

On the streets of the Serbian capital, 25-year-old Vuk told me it was an "insane" move.

"It's definitely wrong to accuse only us," he said. "If you look at the numbers, we are the ones who perished in Bosnia, not the Muslims, not the Croats."

Dragan Bugarcic disagreed.

"Something horrible happened in Srebrenica," he said. "The sooner we clear everything up, the sooner we can build completely new relationships based on co-operation. That's why I support this resolution."

A modern, democratic Serbia has emerged from the ashes of Yugoslavia, its sights set on a European future after years of diplomatic isolation.

But among the people, there is still a battle between contrition and national pride, with little consensus on how to heal the wounds of the past.

Critical days leading up to Srebrenica massacre

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