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Balkans Without Borders

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Dusko Vujosevic

As Bosnia-Herzegovina's national basketball squad prepares to play Armenia in a game that could land it in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, fans are counting on a Yugoslav throwback to pull them through. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

He belongs on the biggest stage. Yet the breakup of Yugoslavia stalled the career of the popular basketball coach Dusko Vujosevic.

His club "Partizan," where winning had been part of the club's DNA, was undermined by officials, not least because of its links to the tradition of the World War II antifascists.

In Vujosevic's words: "Partizan always retained elements of that [antifascist] tradition, that honor code, that spirit. Its success was at least in part due to that spirit, and our ability to foster that spirit. However, that may also have been the reason why we were singled out and suffocated financially."

Partizan was inextricably bound to the struggle of the Yugoslav partisans in World War II, and the very idea of Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, its crosstown rival Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) had a reputation as the team of Serbian patriots and nationalists. With the fall of Yugoslavia, Partizan did not lose its fan base, but it was deprived of state support in a postcommunist country that has largely disavowed its antifascist past and traditions. The Serbian political elite headed by President Aleksandar Vucic have conspicuously backed Zvezda over its rivals.

Nikola Jokic of Serbia at the 2016 Rio Olympics
Nikola Jokic of Serbia at the 2016 Rio Olympics

"There was room for two good basketball clubs, and so there was no need to destroy Partizan," says Vujosevic.

Two years ago, when he was replaced as head coach of Partizan, Vujosevic told RFE/RL:

"I am a rare coach to lose his job not because of results on the court, which is a normal hazard of the job. We always had fantastic results despite the chronic shortage of funds. However, the club president was forced to resign because he had been told [by senior political figures] that sponsors would continue to stay away from the club as long as I was head coach. It was nothing short of blackmail."

Regarding the relationship between sports and politics, Vujosevic alleges that fan groups are often used for political purposes.

"In these parts, it has become common practice to manipulate sports fan groups, and they are mobilized when needed to burn foreign embassies, to disrupt the gay-pride parade, or during elections."

"But not all fans should be seen in this light. The majority are above all sports lovers, and have no ulterior motives. Most of them come to the games simply to enjoy themselves, to see their team win, and to enjoy the beauty of the game. It is something that improves their quality of life, and nothing more or less."

After losing his job at Partizan, Vujosevic spent a year coaching Limoges CSP, in the French league, before taking over as the head coach of the Bosnian national team in 2017.

"None of its successor states will ever have the strength of Yugoslavia. Just remember Sarajevo, and the competition it overcame to get the [1984 Winter] Olympics. Could that story repeat itself today, with any city in the region? The whole foundation was so much stronger. Among other things, that country [Yugoslavia] ensured that young players stayed longer and developed in the domestic league [before going abroad]. The national team was the breeding ground for talent. It's also a different story when you are picking your national team from among 22 million [the population of Yugoslavia before its dissolution] and 7 million [the population of Serbia, the largest republic, today]. We will never have the strength in depth of Yugoslavia. We played good basketball [then] and the results were phenomenal. We still get good results, but it's much harder and very different."

Ahmed Buric
Ahmed Buric

For Sarajevo journalist Ahmed Buric, Yugoslav basketball -- in which Dusko Vujosevic, as the coach of one of its best teams (Partizan), played a prominent role -- was one of the symbols of the former state.

"Although that country [Yugoslavia] also made the tanks, mortars, and shells that were [later] used to bomb Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, Mostar, Srebrenica, and other cities, there were also things worthy of respect. Now that some time has passed, the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the name Yugoslavia is basketball."

Buric is not alone in his nostalgia for Yugoslav basketball. Last year a piece in Rolling Stone magazine argued that the most influential basketball team of all time may not have been the U.S. Dream Team, but Yugoslavia's basketball team of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its 1992 lineup is referred to as the "greatest team that never was," having never stepped onto a court together due to the outbreak of the war.

"I guess that is the only sense in which I am still a 'Yugoslav,'" Buric adds. "In the sense that I follow and cheer on the careers of all the players from the region who are plying their trade in the NBA. I am just as happy when I see that, for instance, [Dario] Saric (a Croatian) has improved his shooting accuracy in Philadelphia and has an average of 20 points, as when Jusuf Nurkic (a Bosnian who plays for the Portland Trail Blazers) destroys Denver with 32 points and 16 rebounds. Or when [Nikola] Vucevic (a Montenegrin) shines for Orlando, or [Nikola] Jokic (a Serbian) for Denver, [Goran] Dragic (a Slovenian) for [the Miami] Heat, or when [Bojan] Bogdanovic [a Croatian] backed up [Bradley] Beale and [John] Wall in what was probably [the] Washington [Wizards'] best season. Or when I keep an eye on the Herzegovinians [Dragan] Bender and [Ivica] Zubac in Phoenix and Los Angeles, respectively."

Many of those NBA stars are graduates of Vujosevic's basketball "school."

After being named head coach of the Bosnian national team, Vujosevic sent an open letter to the Bosnian public in which he paraphrased a Bosnian poet: "Bosnia on a map has the shape of a heart. And the heart of that heart is Sarajevo. I have always gladly come to this city, whether as coach or as a private individual. Sarajevo was for many reasons one of the best places for people to get together in Yugoslavia, that united and beautiful country in which I was born and whose disappearance is so painful to me."

By moving to Sarajevo, Vujosevic probably did not find the city that he remembered from the years before the war (1992-95). He moved from a country where the state could be seen as meddling in sports too much (Serbia) to one where its involvement is virtually nonexistent, even when it comes to basic financial support of sports development at the national level (Bosnia).

He has also taken on a considerable professional challenge, taking over a Bosnian national team in transition in the middle of a FIBA World Cup qualifying campaign. The results have been great so far, with a string of victories leaving Bosnia on the verge of making it to the main qualifying tournament for the 2019 World Cup in China. The Bosnian fans in turn have responded by taking Vujosevic into their hearts and have been chanting his name at recent matches.

The decisive game is against Armenia in Yerevan on August 19. Will Vujosevic's boundless passion for the game and his fighting spirit be enough to take Bosnia to the next step, and provide not only some much-needed relief but also unity for a beleaguered and divided country?

UPDATE: Bosnia won the game against Armenia 83-66 on August 19.

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

Mostar, Bosnia's Most Divided City

  • Gordana Knezevic
Tourists flock every year to the Mostar Bridge, which spans the Neretva River that divides the city along ethnic lines. (file photo)

Visitors to Mostar usually have no idea whether they are on the Muslim or the Croat bank of the Neretva River. That imaginary dividing line only exists in the hearts and minds of the city's residents. It corresponds to the front line that ran through the center of the town and next to its main high school during the war of 1992-95.

Mostar is flooded with tourists at the moment. Ignoring temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius, people from all over the word have been flocking to the Bosnian city in record numbers to see the Old Bridge, a masterpiece of 16th-century Ottoman architecture.

There is nothing to indicate to the visitors whether they are on the Muslim or the Croat bank of the Neretva River. That imaginary dividing line only exists in the hearts and minds of the people of Mostar. It corresponds to the front line that ran through the center of the city and next to its main high school during the war of 1992-95.

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, the high school was given a Croat name and was reserved exclusively for ethnic Croat youth. Under pressure from the international community, in 2003 the Croat and Muslim high schools were formally integrated. However, that move only led to a form of apartheid that is becoming common throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. It's a system of two schools under one roof. On the surface everything appears normal, with Croat and Muslim kids attending classes in the same building. In reality, they follow different curricula, have different teachers, classrooms, and school officials.

The Narcissism Of Minor Differences

At least the school building itself has been renovated. The beautiful neo-Moorish structure built in 1902 has been restored and repainted in its original vivid colors.

According to Syracuse University professor Azra Hromadzic, the newly "unified" high school does not simply reflect the ethnic divisions in Bosnian society, but rather reproduces them. She was in Mostar to attend the launch of the Bosnian translation of her new book, Citizens Of An Empty Nation, which is focused on the main high school as a symbol of a divided city.

"Divisions are unavoidable -- we have a problem only when divisions are overdetermined by a particular form of identity," says Hromadzic, who teaches anthropology at Syracuse. In her book she analyzes how the narcissism of minor differences has become the dominant feature of post-war Bosnian society, in which ethnicity annihilates all other identities -- and in the process denies Bosnian history and tradition.

Toilets As Common Ground

Life in post-Dayton Bosnia is determined by the constitutional idea of two nations living side by side but never coming into contact with one another.

It is a model that goes against the grain of Bosnia's history of ethnic pluralism.

"Divisions did not cause the war -- they are the result of war. But the reason why divisions remain in society is related to the way how differences are being managed," says Hromadzic. Pointing out that there is no shared public space where people of different ethnic groups can come together, Hromadzic goes back to her case study, the Mostar high school.

Professor Azra Hromadzic (file photo)
Professor Azra Hromadzic (file photo)

​"The only place where students of different ethnicities come across each other is the school toilet."

"That is the place where they come for a secret cigarette. I just discovered that by accident while I was doing my research at the school. There were no professional guidelines on how to conduct an ethnographic study in a toilet."

Not only in the Mostar high school, but in Bosnia as a whole, public space has been reduced to ethnic space.

After school each student goes to her or his bank of the Neretva River -- a daily reality replicated throughout the country.

"Interaction between people of different ethnicities has been banished to the smelly toilets," Hromadzic told an international forum in Mostar on August 2.

'Afraid To Cross The Bridge'

The school is educating young people who do not identify with the Bosnian state -- only with their ethnic group.

"I was a student in the Mostar high school that is part of that unfortunate project -- two schools under one roof," says Lana Prlic, now the vice president of Bosnia's Social-Democratic Party.

"Bosniak kids in one class," she says, referring to Bosnian Muslims. "Croat kids in another."

"While we separate our children," she notes, the top floor of the school houses the United World College Mostar, where around 150 young people from across the world gather to learn about differences.

Two ethnicities under one roof -- the high school in Mostar
Two ethnicities under one roof -- the high school in Mostar

Two years ago, a student from the Mostar high school appeared on "Perspektiva," a program produced by RFE/RL and NED (National Endowment for Democracy), and made waves in the region by stating that he had never crossed Mostar's famous Old Bridge. The boundaries of his world are the boundaries of the Croat part of the city.

"The whole world knows Mostar for its Old Bridge, and I -- a Mostar native -- had never set foot on it, because I'm afraid," the young man explained at the time, adding that he dreamed about studying at the Faculty of Traffic and Communications in Sarajevo, but that he was apprehensive about being in an environment where ethnic Bosniaks were in the majority.

Known to the public only by his first name, Ante, he expressed anxiety over what might happen to him on the other side of the river, where "the others" live. In one of the later episodes of this youth-oriented show, Ante was filmed by a TV crew as he finally crossed the river and had a coffee on the other side.

'Sniffing Warily From Behind The Bushes'

Another student, reflecting on Ante's experience, made the following comments on the "Bljesak" portal:

It would be hypocritical of me to say that when I first came into contact with those from 'the other side' -- when I was 15 -- I did not have any prejudices. We were among the first classes to have the courage to attend that school. That's what it took -- courage. A decade or so ago, the old high school had a terrible reputation. It was still bullet-ridden and full of shrapnel holes, and stood on the dividing line, seen as the place of constant clashes and disturbances. It was attended by both Bosniaks and Croats. Classes were small, because few wanted to go to such a school.

We observed each other from a distance, sniffed warily from behind the bushes, and then we slowly approached one another and saw that we were the same. There were no fights or riots. Only some minor provocations when the football matches were on, mainly in the form of some graffiti in the toilets. Ironically, it was precisely in the toilets where we came together and interacted.

Yet another reminder of Bosnian fractured society. It appears that, as long as ethnicity is the only way of expressing identity, rebuilding a 16th-century bridge was easy compared to the task of rebuilding broken relations between ethnic groups.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those 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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