The Serbian President has apologised for the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, saying he was on his knees and “asking for a pardon” for Europe's worst atrocity since the end of the Second World War.
President Tomislav Nikolic's comments came a week after Serbia inked a historic deal to normalise ties with Kosovo, and analysts say Belgrade is keen to soften relations with its neighbours as it seeks European Union membership and the financial boost that could bring.
While previous Serbian leaders have apologised for Srebrenica, President Nikolic stirred controversy after coming to power last May when he specifically denied that a genocide took place. The nationalist President again refused to refer to the events of 1995 as a genocide, instead issuing a broad apology for crimes during the break up of the former Yugoslavia.
“I apologise for the crimes committed by any individual in the name of our state and our people,” the President said in an interview due to air next month on Bosnian television. Extracts were released on YouTube.
“I'm on my knees,” he went on. “I am on my knees and asking for a pardon for Serbia for the crime that was committed in Srebrenica.”
Munira Subasic, the head of the Mothers of Srebrenica group, said his comments did not go far enough. “We don't need someone to kneel and ask for apology,” she said. “We want to hear Serbian president and Serbia say the word 'genocide'”
The 8,000 men and boys were killed in the summer of 1995 when Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN-protected enclave. The massacre came towards the end of the 1993-1995 conflict which left 100,000 dead in Bosnia and tore the Balkans apart.
Some previous statements by President Nikolic had caused angry reactions. Earlier this month, in a debate before the UN, Mr Nikolic strongly criticised The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal, saying it was “biased against Serbs”.
Vesna Pesic, a commentator and former opposition politician, welcomed the comments as “an improvement” on what he had said before.
“This is the way out from madness we lived in and an indication that normalisation lies ahead, particularly after the agreement in Brussels was signed,” she said.
Mr Nikolic's apology came after his Prime Minister Ivica Dacic last Friday signed the first ever agreement with his Kosovan counterpart on the normalisation of relations, after months of EU-brokered talks.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but Serbia has refused to recognise it. Belgrade came under increasing pressure from the EU, which put normalisation of ties as a pre-condition for the start of membership talks. Serbia is keen to join the bloc to boost its sluggish economy. In the deal reached in Brussels, Belgrade has agreed to recognise Kosovan authority over its territory, including a Serb-dominated enclave in the north.
It was enough for the European Commission, which announced on Monday that they would be recommending the beginning of EU membership talks with Serbia. Serbian analyst Djordje Vukadinovic said that the apology by Mr Nikolic “came as a surprise”, and was most probably the result of international pressures.
It also comes days after a visit of Bosnia-Herzegovina President Bakir Izetbegovic to Belgrade, the first since the former Yugoslav republic became an independent state. Bosnia-Herzegovina is also keen to pursue EU membership.
Meanwhile the Kosovan Foreign Minister, Enver Hoxhaj, said that the apology to Bosnia “was important”. “But, he (Nikolic) should apologise for war crimes committed under the auspices of Serbian state in Kosovo as well,” Mr Hoxhaj tweeted.