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The Balkans: Do official overtures represent real progress?

Experts on the former Yugoslavia say that political reconciliation will not heal lingering war wounds.

A Bosnian Muslim leads prayers behind the closed gates of a factory where Muslim men and boys were executed by Serb forces in 1995, in the village of Kravica July 13, 2009. A group of survivors and relatives of victims visited for the first time sites of execution of thousands of Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica on the anniversary of the killings. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

GRAZ, Austria — A series of dramatic and contradictory developments in the former Yugoslavia could be interpreted as the start of a road to reconciliation, albeit a long and bumpy one. But Balkan analysts warn that reconciliation is not the motive or a likely consequence.

March began with former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic opening his defense against war crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, offering a version of events sure to sour already deeply embittered relations in Bosnia. Another layer of ethnic acrimony was added from the very start of proceedings when Serbia requested the extradition of former Bosnian President Ejup Ganic from the United Kingdom on war crimes charges.

Yet, on the very last day of the month, things seemed to mellow when Serbia's parliament narrowly passed a resolution condemning the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces, one of the 11 war crimes for which Karadzic stands accused. It angered many Muslims by shrinking from using the word "genocide," but was hailed by the European Commission for being a "step forward."

The week before Serbia passed its Srebrenica resolution, former combatants Serbia and Croatia showed a degree of neighborliness. Serbian president Boris Tadic had two meetings with his recently elected Croatian counterpart, Ivo Josipovic, the first in Croatia and the second in Brussels. Apart from posing with broad smiles for the cameras, they agreed to try and settle their genocide suits out of court.

But the flurry of activity is no sign of reconciliation, said Denisa Kostovicova, a Balkans expert and researcher with the London School of Economics, as one sentiment shared across the former Yugoslavia is the sense victimhood. Since the idea of "reconciliation" suggests a need to accept blame or offer forgiveness for crimes, Kostovicova said, it poses a problem in the Balkans, where there is often no shared recognition they even occurred.

"If you talk about reconciliation you are probably raising the bar so high you won't notice any progress," Kostovicova said.

"The countries of the former Yugoslavia live with a false past, screening out all painful events or defending an indefensible past," said Vedran Dzihic of the University of Vienna. "This means we are still facing the situation where trust and reconciliation between the ethnic communities has not been re-established. The past, meanwhile, is still widely misused for political purposes."