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World-renowned scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was an ethnic Serb who was born and raised in Croatia. He emigrated to the United States in 1884.

The dispute over the final resting place of the remains of Nikola Tesla, the scientist and inventor, has flared up again. The debate has been raging since 2006, and pits the Serbian government and the Orthodox Church against sections of the public and the scientific community.

The inventor's ashes have been on display in an elegant gold-plated urn at the Tesla Museum in the Serbian capital Belgrade since 1957.

However, in a recent meeting between Patriarch Irinej, the primate of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and President Tomislav Nikolic, the idea of relocating Tesla's ashes to the temple of St. Sava -- originally proposed a few years ago -- has been resurrected.

The urn is supposed to be placed in the portico of St. Sava's church and a monument to Tesla is planned for the area between the church and the library.

Belgrade-based science reporter Slobodan Bubnjevic considers the initiative to move Tesla's ashes to the church of St. Sava as objectionable now as it was before.

"The urn belongs to the Nikola Tesla Museum," he said. "That had been [Tesla's own] wish, and the wish of his heirs, those appointed by Tesla to take care of his remains. It would be a cultural travesty on the part of the Orthodox Church [to have the ashes moved]."

'The Son Of A Priest'

Meanwhile, the editor of the Orthodox Church magazine Ljubomir Rankovic, in conversation with RFE/RL in Belgrade, insisted that St. Sava's church would be the ideal repository for Tesla's remains.

"Vracar Hill holds symbolic meaning for all Serbs as the location of the monument to one of the most important Serbs of all time," he said. (St. Sava was the first archbishop and founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Next to the church is a monument to Karadjordje, the leader of the First Serbian Uprising against Ottoman rule.) "Bearing in mind that Tesla was the son of a priest, and grew up in a priestly family, I see no reason why the urn of such a great scientist should not be placed on that hill. Not that the hill would in some way enhance Tesla's greatness, but because of the light that such a move would bring to all Serbs."

Light, of course, has already been given not just to Serbs but to the world, partly thanks to Tesla, who was instrumental in the development of electric power.

Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Museum is an important location in its own right, and has received more than 1 million visitors since its opening in 1952. In 2014, a protest against the removal of Tesla's ashes attracted thousands of citizens of Belgrade. A Facebook campaign, "Leave Tesla Alone," started almost immediately after the announcement, and gathered tens of thousands of supporters on social media.

WATCH: Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Museum

I feel strongly that Tesla's ashes should stay in the museum. The museum is Tesla's temple, and its door is open to people of all ages, genders, religions, nationalities, and races.

The museum must respect Tesla's wishes and those of his family, according to the museum's director Vladimir Jelenkovic.

"Dr. Milica Trbojevic and Sava Kosanovic, Tesla's niece and nephew, made the decision to transfer the urn from New York [where he died] to Belgrade in 1957, and to have it exhibited in the Nikola Tesla Museum," he said. "That was also the desire of Tesla's sister's great-grandchild, William Terbo, the only surviving relative of Tesla."

The church meanwhile wants to emphasize Tesla's Orthodox connection, highlighting the fact that his father was a priest.

Ethnic Dimension

There is also an ethnic dimension. Tesla's identity has been the subject of a long-running dispute between Serbs and Croats. (Tesla was an ethnic Serb from Croatia.) It appears that the Orthodox Church wants to put an end to this by placing the famous scientist's remains under the roof of the most important church in Serbia.

But Tesla himself provided the best answer to the question of his identity. In response to a message from Croatian politician Vlatko Macek, in 1936, Tesla sent a telegram that read: "Thank you very much for your greatly appreciated congratulations. I am equally proud of my Serbian origin and my Croatian fatherland."

Tesla was born into an ethnic Serb family in Smiljan, a small town in what was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and now Croatia. He became a U.S. citizen in 1891.

One among a number of recent tweets regarding the proposed move captured the feelings of many in Belgrade: "Tesla belongs to the world, not a decoration in a church."

The dispute could take another turn with the approach of the July 10 anniversary, when the scientific community will mark 160 years since Tesla's birth. It will be another test for Belgrade civil society.

The church hierarchy seems intent on enlisting the famous scientist's legacy in its ongoing efforts to stoke Serbian nationalism. Bearing in mind the power and political influence of the Orthodox Church in Serbia, it will be an uneven fight.

Mirjana Markovic seems oblivious to the fact that her book makes her appear as culpable as her late husband, Slobodan Milosevic, himself for the crimes of the regime.

Finally, we have it from the horse's mouth: the 1990s retold -- or reimagined -- by Mirjana Markovic, the widow of former Serbian leader and indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.

The title of her new book, This Is How It Was (Bilo Je To Ovako, in Serbian), assures us that we might as well forget everything we know about that tragic period as Markovic presents her version of Serbia's recent history over roughly 1,000 self-indulgent pages.

Its revisionism is almost certain to foment Serbian nationalism, particularly given Markovic's enormous influence near the center of events in Belgrade at the time and the official support the book is receiving.

Immediately after her husband's extradition to The Hague in 2001 over war crimes charges, Markovic remained in the Serbian capital. Two years later, however, facing charges of corruption herself, she sought sanctuary in Moscow. (Milosevic died of a heart attack in his prison cell in The Hague in 2006, before the conclusion of his trial by the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.)

The book covers her childhood, marriage, and her husband's rise and fall. But make no mistake about it, it is all about Mirjana Markovic.

I recall a time in the early 1990s when she shared her musings with the Serbian public through columns in the magazine Duga, in which she rambled pseudo-philosophically on the horrors of war, socialism, her love of the Croatian resort of Dubrovnik (which her husband's army bombed), the manliness of her "wild mustang" of a son, Marko, and the apparently slightly less admirable high-spiritedness of her daughter.

In her new book, she describes a deal she had struck with the editor of Duga: Instead of paying for her columns, she writes, the magazine promised to avoid criticism of Milosevic. She says the editor accepted the deal because he was confident that circulation would rise with her as a contributor.

Alas, that proved to be the case. Duga's readership grew, since by reading Markovic's articles one could predict whose political fortunes were about to improve or which prominent figure was slated to lose his or her job. In the same vein, in her book she purports to have made ministerial promotions and other major political decisions -- whispered over the pillow to her obedient husband.

She seems oblivious to the fact that her book makes her appear as culpable as Milosevic himself for the crimes of the regime. But it is not written for people, like me, who remember the war and the horrors of the 1990s, when Milosevic was the master of our destinies.

Officially, Markovic headed the neo-communist Yugoslav left -- comprising high-ranking military and secret police officers and businessmen who were integrated into the Milosevic regime, enjoying huge behind-the-scenes influence during her husband's rule.

In her book, she blames the West for starting the war in the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic, as his widow tells it, was merely looking after the interests of all Serbs.

Her Serbian publisher says: "After 15 years of silence in exile, in a bid to fulfill her late husband, Slobodan's, last wish, Mira Markovic shares with the public the previously unknown story of her life and family."

The book, which ends with Milosevic's death and Mirjana's life in exile, will benefit from official support. The Serbian Culture Ministry each year recommends titles to be added to the country's public-library collections, and this time around taxpayer money will be used to ensure that each and every library in Serbia has a copy of Markovic's memoirs.

Historian Milos Kovic, the president of the Culture Ministry's commission in charge of book acquisitions, told RFE/RL in Belgrade that the decision was not politically motivated but was based on the belief that the book provides valuable documentation of a period in Serbian history.

The commission apparently chose to ignore the fact that Markovic is currently the subject of two ongoing investigations in Serbia, or that the book is a brazen attempt to vindicate the policies and actions of the Serbian regime in the 1990s. (Riding a wave of Serbian nationalism, Milosevic first became president of Serbia, then in 1997 became president of rump Yugoslavia. He led the country into disastrous wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and finally Kosovo, which ended with the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999.)

Apart from the wars that Milosevic conducted, it has been established in courts of law that he ordered the murder of Ivan Stambolic, a prominent Serbian political figure, and an attempt on the life of Vuk Draskovic, who was then a leader of Serbia's opposition.

Draskovic, who later served as foreign minister, said of the decision to supply a copy of Markovic's book to every library in Serbia: "It is a political decision, in line with current trends. A new past is being tailored, very different to how we remember it, or as we survived it during the terrible 1990s. It is being fabricated for new generations who were not born at the time when Mirjana Markovic and her husband occupied the top of an evil pyramid of power."

One could add that Markovic's choice of Moscow for her exile was no accident. Indeed, her book is very much in line with official Russian views and policies in the Balkans. As an inflammatory, revisionist account of the 1990s, it might contribute to stoking nationalist fervor and anti-Western sentiment in Serbia, which is very much in Moscow's interest.

But above all, the book reveals an unrepentant, even mockingly defiant, Lady Macbeth, reveling in her declared role as the power behind the throne.

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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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