It's indeed remarkable that Nikolic, of all people, apologized on Bosnian television for the most appalling massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian war criminals in Srebrenica. Unlike his pro-European predecessor Boris Tadic, who had made similar comments in the past, Europe wasn't expecting such a comment from the ultra-nationalist Nikolic. Just a couple years ago, Nikolic publicly opposed the extradition of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, who are on trial for war crimes; he also criticized the war crimes tribunal in The Hague for being biased.
An apology from a member of the political right-wing also sends a strong message to Serbian nationalistic forces. It's no surprise that these groups don't hold back when criticizing Nikolic's statement.
Did Nikolic really mean it?
But how does his apology impact the victims? Their reactions are quite reserved, and rightly so. The victim's association "Mothers of Srebrenica" has criticized that Nikolic did not bring himself to call the massacre in Srebrenica a genocide. That has yet to be proven, the Serbian president said, adding that all conflicting parties in former Yugoslavia had carried out atrocities that would qualify as genocide. It is such additional comments that cast doubts on his sincerity.
These doubts are fuelled by another point: While saying "I kneel and ask for forgiveness for Serbia," he was sitting comfortably in his armchair. Sincere remorse certainly looks different. German Chancellor Willy Brandt's spontaneous move to kneel in front of a monument for Nazi-era victims in Warsaw, Poland, two decades after World War II, was a convincing and touching gesture. This silent, humble gesture was genuine and made history.
Actions need to follow words
Nikolic's words need to be put into context of Serbia approaching the European Union. Pleasing Brussels is a top priority as the European Commission has recommended starting accession talks after an agreement between Serbia and its former province Kosovo. Due to the worst economic crisis in years, which has been fuelled even further by the European financial crisis, getting EU membership status is considered more important the Belgrade government than clinging to national sentiments. These sentiments include the common perception of Serbians being the Yugoslav Wars' true victims and the notion that the UN war crime tribunal is biased against Serbia.
It takes more than words to change this widespread attitude and open up the path to reconciliation. A genuine examination of recent history and Serbia's own responsibility in the Yugoslav Wars is necessary. Enabling an exchange for young people that are willing to change their perspective is also required. It is not until words become action - action to showing that reconciliation is genuinely wanted - that the Bosnian war victims be able to accept the apology.