U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has issued an apology for his country's decision to bomb Serbia during Bill Clinton's tenure at the White House.
U.S. and NATO allies launched aerial campaigns against the faltering Yugoslav regime, targeting ethnic Serb troops in 1995 and 1999. The first attack was carried out in support of groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, seeking independence from Belgrade, while the second was in support of similar forces in Kosovo.
"The bombing of Serbs, who were our allies in both world wars, was a big mistake," Trump told Serbian weekly magazine Nedeljnik. "Serbians are very good people. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration caused them a lot of harm, but also throughout the Balkans, which they made a mess out of."
Bill Clinton, husband and supporter of Trump's rival in the presidential race, Hillary Clinton, was president of the U.S. throughout the violent collapse of Yugoslavia, which saw ethnic Serb militias engage in ethnic cleansing against predominantly Muslim groups in the former Yugoslavia. The bombings caused hundreds of civilian casualties but also stopped the advance of Serb troops.
Trump did not specify how he would have handled the situation differently, but vowed to have "a new policy with the Balkans if (he) won" the election.
The NATO bombings are still a controversial issue in Serbia, which has been transformed since the collapse of the Communist Yugoslav Federation, into an EU candidate country.
Eric Gordy, professor in Southeast European Politics at University College London told Newsweek Trump's words echo the tactic used by the Russian government to cultivate support among Serbs.
"The most obvious interpretation of his statement is that it is another sign of alignment with Russia," he says. "To be honest, this kind of statement is usually more a symbolic attempt for Russian politicians to drum up resentment towards the U.S.," Gordy explains.
"I expect this is probably just rhetoric by Trump as U.S. policy in the Balkans has been pretty consistently supportive of Serbia since they waged the aerial campaign in the 1990s," Gordy adds. "Otherwise it is hard to imagine that the U.S. could be more pro-Serbia at the moment."
The bombings are a strong factor keeping Serbia officially neutral from military alliances, be it with NATO or Russia, when all of its neighbors, with the exception of Bosnia, are either in NATO or applying for membership. Russia has sought to cultivate stronger military and political ties with Serbia as a result and it is currently sending troops on their first military drill on the Balkans, in Serbia.
Politically, the Kremlin has often tried to play up the religious bond between the two Orthodox countries, as well as their role in fighting Nazism in World War II. Earlier this year when U.S. vice president Joe Biden visited Serbia he was met by hundreds of protesters chanting "Vote for Trump." The protest was organized by one of Serbia's biggest pro-Russian powers, the nationalist Radical Party.
Gordy continues: "This is rhetoric consistent with both the Russian line on Serbia and the U.S. far-right who view the Yugoslav conflict in terms of a battle between Christianity and Islam. They look at Bosnia and Kosovo and argue that this is when Islamists got their first foot in Europe.
"Another aspect, if you look at the states that Trump would like to contest in the election, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, they are states with the biggest concentration of voters that trace their roots back to the Balkans, so his statement could have something to do with that," he concludes.