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Balkans Without Borders

A Gulen school in Sarajevo.

As if Bosnia did not have enough of its own problems, it is at risk of becoming embroiled in the increasingly fraught domestic struggles of Turkey. The country’s friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is certain to come under strain because of the extensive network of Fethullah Gulen’s schools scattered across the country.

In January 2015, Erdogan had asked for the closure of the entire network of Gulen’s schools in Bosnia, according to the Bosnian daily Avaz. Apart from the capital Sarajevo, they are present in all the major centers in the Muslim-Croat Federation -- Bihac, Zenica, Tuzla, and Mostar. The request was not sent through regular diplomatic channels, but directly to the ruling Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) run by Bakir Izetbegovic.

Gulen schools have been active in Bosnia since 1997. Several hundred flats, kindergartens, high schools, and universities are part of the network. The most prominent are the International Burch University in Sarajevo and the Una-Sana college in northern Bosnia.

The Gulen movement is dedicated to investing in education for the lower and middle classes. The movement states its purpose is to impart the moral values of Islam, as well as subjects such as mathematics, physics, and chemistry, with a view to forming a new Turkish elite and eradicating the secular ideas of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

Postwar Bosnia has been an important playground for Turkish politicians. With Erdogan keen to revive memories of his country’s imperial heritage, the former Ottoman province could be an ideal stage for Turkey to flex its muscles as a regional power.

There is a new geopolitical context, as well. Since the war (1992-1995), Bosnian Serbs have been looking to Serbia as their “motherland,” and Bosnia as a kind of “temporary home.” It is similar with the Bosnian Croats. Croatia is the “homeland” and their presence in Bosnia seen as merely accidental. Squeezed between the two, many Bosnian Muslims have turned to Turkey. Turkish flags are often waved by young fans in the streets of Bosnian cities following sporting victories.

However, Turkey’s patronage of Bosnia’s Muslim community is more apparent than real. It is a myth that Turkey is the biggest investor in Bosnia. In fact, Austria tops the list and Turkey is not even among the top 10 investors in the country. But Turkey did help with the restoration of the famous Old Bridge in Mostar. It was also involved in the latter stages of another landmark project, the reconstruction of Banja Luka’s Ferhadija mosque, opened on May 7, 2016.

In other words, Turkish investments in Bosnia are token by comparison with other countries, but they are focused on the rebuilding of highly symbolic structures from the Ottoman period, which were destroyed in the war. Such perceived expressions of “brotherly love” between Turkey and the Bosnian Muslims are viewed askance by Belgrade -- even though Turkish investments are far higher in Serbia and Croatia.

In terms of foreign education, however, Turkey dominates -- for now, at least. A few months ago, the official line from Sarajevo’s International Burch University was that as an institution of higher education it was founded and run in accordance with local regulations, and was subject to oversight by the Bosnian authorities. There has been no comment since the ongoing crisis in Turkey began to unfold, with the government’s crackdown on alleged Gulenist supporters including thousands of teachers and university deans.

The Turkish Embassy in Sarajevo has previously disowned the Gulenist educational network in Bosnia, stating that “the Turkish state has no link with Bosna Sema [a Gulen school],” and asking Bosnian citizens to be wary.

The same appeal for caution was issued by Salmir Kaplan, the former culture and sports minister in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the country’s two constituent entities. Kaplan had first-hand experience of the Gulen schools and has said he was struck by their cult-like aspects. Others, like Slavo Kukic, a professor in Mostar, have pointed to the absence of any educational standards. It is too easy for anyone to open a university in Bosnia, Kukic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service:

“The first universities and schools [after the war] were started in gas stations. They did not have space. Now they are producing PhDs. The way it seems to work is -- enroll on Thursday and graduate by Saturday, metaphorically speaking. We will pay for this [laxity] in the next decade.”

For Bosnia, the proliferation of foreign educational institutions, in the form of Gulenist schools, has thus far seemed more benign than the parallel invasion of Saudi-style mosques preaching a severe form of political Islam. But with events in Turkey escalating dramatically, Bosnia may find itself no longer a showcase for Turkish power and largesse, however token or symbolic, but a new battlefront in a suddenly furious domestic dispute.

A truck passes by a ruined house in the town of Vukovar, which was left devastated by the Balkan conflict. (file photo, taken October 1992)

In reaction to my blog post on Goran Hadzic, who died before the case against him at the International War Crimes Tribunal was completed, I received an e-mail from a well-respected U.S. historian. In a courteous and otherwise supportive message, the professor objected to my description of the level of devastation of Vukovar in 1991, at the outset of the Yugoslav wars:

"I want to correct a misstatement in the text that has become an urban myth in the annals of the Yugoslav wars: Having visited Vukovar shortly after the conclusion of hostilities and several times since, I can assure you that the city was far from 'totally destroyed'.To be more precise, only the relatively small downtown area was devastated. Although there was significant damage to outlying structures that were targeted by JNA [Yugoslav People's Army] artillery (every non-Orthodox church, the train station, the Eltz palace/museum, the water tower, among many others), most of the rest of the town was surprisingly intact. Vukovar residents themselves have been quick to point this out to visitors," the professor wrote.

Not every building in Vukovar was leveled to the ground. In that respect the professor is right. Parts of the city inhabited predominantly by Serbs were largely spared. But there can be no doubt that the scale of the destruction was staggering, and that it was fairly comprehensive. The center of Vukovar, its landmarks and emblematic baroque buildings were destroyed. The extent of the damage may be seen in this photo gallery:

PHOTO GALLERY: War Takes Its Toll On Vukovar

But the city was also destroyed in another sense -- its social fabric was rent asunder. One of the most diverse and multiethnic communities in the former Yugoslavia was extinguished completely as such. Even after the material damage has been repaired, Vukovar is no longer the same city. The formerly cosmopolitan spirit of Vukovar -- which belied the city's modest size -- was irreversibly destroyed.

Reduced To Ashes

Before the war, more than 20 ethnic groups lived in Vukovar. Not only Serbs and Croats, who made up the majority, and those who identified as "Yugoslavs" (roughly 10 percent), but also Ruthenians/Rusyns, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and many others. Moreover, the citizens of Vukovar were proud of their multicultural city, and ethnic background was irrelevant in daily life and social relations.

All of that was reduced to ashes after 87 days under siege and incessant bombardment by the Yugoslav People's Army and paramilitary groups from Serbia. Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times described the devastation after the fall of the city, in November 1991:

"Not a single home is habitable. No shop, no church, no public building survived. The rubber factory that provided jobs for the former city of 60,000 is a mass of twisted metal, crumbled brick and cratered earth. […] the city is a wasteland, devastated beyond repair. The only hope for a new Vukovar is bulldozing the ruins and rebuilding from scratch…"

Today Vukovar has been rebuilt, but the tension and mutual suspicion remain. The Croatian government's recent attempt to introduce signs in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets (used by Croats and Serbs, respectively), was met with mass protests organized by those who claim to stand for a "Croatian Vukovar." The city has become a symbol of the Homeland War -- Croatia's war of independence from Yugoslavia -- and has been heavily exploited by Croatian nationalists as "Croatia's Stalingrad, the martyred city."

Connecting The Dots

Only after the war was I able to connect the dots between Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, and Mostar. What connects these cities, two in Croatia and the other two in Bosnia, is the fact that they were arguably the most successful multiethnic communities in the former Yugoslavia, true melting-pots of Balkan nations.

People in all four cities did not merely tolerate one another, they actively embraced each other's culture and ways. This was not just the result of the official ideology of "brotherhood and unity" proclaimed by the late president Tito, or some communist imposition. That way of life and cultural exchange was older than Tito. It was result of a troubled history. To protect one's neighbor was a survival strategy through successive occupations and liberations, the rise and fall of empires in the Balkans.

Recently deceased Balkan war crimes suspect Goran Hadzic
Recently deceased Balkan war crimes suspect Goran Hadzic

So that old "look-after-your-neighbor" culture, especially if your neighbor is of a different ethnic group, was the first casualty of war.

People like Goran Hadzic believed that they were performing a service for their nation by destroying the bases of common life, and eliminating the "other."

That is why I feel it's impossible to overstate the level and the nature of the destruction of Vukovar. Cities and communities do rise from the ashes, and I would settle for speaking of the "destruction" of Vukovar, rather than its "total destruction". But regardless of how we designate Vukovar's tragedy, there can be no doubt that Europe watched it happen, and did nothing.

In Vukovar, and later in Bosnia, Europe missed a chance to properly articulate and defend its core values -- tolerance, multiculturalism, civil society, peace, freedom, and democracy -- and chose not to stand up to violent ethnic nationalism, to those who propagated fear and hatred of the other.

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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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