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Southern Slavic? Balkan Nationalists Balk At Common Language Initiative


A Declaration on Common Language concerning four Balkan states is presented to the media in Sarajevo on March 30.

An initiative launched in the Bosnian capital on March 30 by hundreds of notables and NGOs marks a major effort to bolster the consensus that Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, and Montenegrins all speak the same language.

It might seem uncontroversial to assert that these neighboring peoples, who until just decades ago shared a country, speak their own standard versions of the same polycentric language.

But word of the so-called Declaration on Common Language -- dubbed by some the Sarajevo Declaration and allying hundreds of personalities and experts from across the Balkans -- has been met with howls of official outrage across the region. Opponents see the initiative as reviving the ghost of the former Yugoslavia -- one of whose official languages was Serbo-Croatian, which is now variously designated as Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, or Serbian. The declaration is therefore regarded by nationalist elites in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro as a threat.

Since the dismantling of Yugoslavia through proclamations of independence and successive wars between 1991 and 1999, the politics of identity has taken center stage in each of these countries. Contrasts are emphasized as symbols of statehood -- and language, above all, is put forward as evidence of distinction.

Croatian 'Newspeak'

Croatia led the way in the early 1990s with the creation of "newspeak" in the best Orwellian tradition, eliminating words that were seen as being of Serbian, or generally foreign, origin and inventing new, irreproachably Croatian ones. Bosnia-Herzegovina increased the number of Turkish words in its vocabulary, while Montenegro even introduced a new letter of the alphabet.

Years of political pressure over the "purity" of language in all these countries provoked a reaction in the form of meetings that led to the Sarajevo Declaration. Those gatherings brought together writers, linguists, actors, directors, and artists from the region together to discuss the relationships between nationalism and language.

The result is the Sarajevo Declaration, which arguably just states the obvious -- that the people in these four countries (Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro) understand each other; that they can communicate without interpreters. The signatories did not promote a "Serbo-Croatian" language, which is generally associated with the former Yugoslavia, as they are comfortable with different versions of the same language having different names: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin. But that simple statement about a shared language is seen by others as a form of heresy -- or treason.

'Producing Future Enemies'

One of the authors of the Sarajevo Declaration, Serbian writer Vladimir Arsenijevic, says the goal of the initiative is to neutralize the damage done by nationalist identity politics in the region.

"It is most visible within the Bosnian education system, where we have two schools under one roof [children of different ethnic groups learning 'different' languages, and a different version of history]. The two-school system is a project designed to produce future enemies," Arsenijevic says.

Miro Lompar, professor of Serb literature at the University of Belgrade, is among the opponents of the initiative. He has expressed concern that the declaration's real goal is to make Serbs in Bosnia and Montenegro less aware of belonging to a Serb nation. Lompar told the Russian state news agency Sputnik in Belgrade ahead of the text's publication:

They would like to insist on a common language, but the motive is to distance ethnic Serbs living in Bosnia and Montenegro from the natural right to claim that they speak the Serbian language. In my opinion, this quasi-Yugoslav initiative is yet another attempt to de-nationalize Serbs in Bosnia and Montenegro, and at the same time to undermine the already incoherent and weak language policy being implemented by Serbia itself.

Sputnik's headline above the Lompar interview was even more dramatic, claiming: Balkan Esperanto [Is Set] To Extinguish The Serbian Language.

A 'Wolf Howl' Of Nationalists

Asked about the declaration a day before it was made public, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic responded with questions about the need for such an initiative: "How could I support that [declaration]? Who in Croatia can support it?"

Plenkovic added: "The Croatian language is defined in our constitution. Croatian is one of the official languages of the EU. That's the only thing that matters to me. There is no need to waste words on sundry informal initiatives."

A former Croatian culture minister and an informal leader of that country's far-right, Zlatko Hasanbegovic, used stronger language to denounce the Sarajevo Declaration as "a wolf howl of Yugoslav nationalists for their lost country."

But a supporter of the initiative, Croatian journalist Ante Tomic, asked rhetorically in his regular column in Jutarnji List whether "we are so stupid that we cannot memorize more than one word for a certain thing." Tomic added that through a language policy based on "pure Croatian," the state is not only controlling its subjects but also creating confusion and stoking animosity against ethnic Serbs.

"I signed [the Sarajevo Declaration] because it is a measure of reconciliation and it recognizes and includes everyone. It affirms differences, and allows for the fact that one thing can be called by many names, and that we all speak the same language, which is variously named Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, or Montenegrin," Tomic said.

The Sarajevo Declaration claims to be nothing more than a strong statement against language being used in any project of segregation -- like that of Bosnian schools -- and against political manipulation based on the restricted use of language.

The Declaration on Common Language will officially go online on April 1, after which the organizers are encouraging supporters to add their signatures to the list.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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