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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.
Former General Ante Gotovina waves as he arrives at Zagreb's airport in November 2012.

Croatian director Antun Vrdoljak finds himself in a bind.

His current project, called The General, deals with Croatia's recent past; it is meant to be a blockbuster about the exploits of Croatian wartime commander Ante Gotovina. Vrdoljak and his crew are currently shooting the film in the vicinity of the Croatian coastal city Split, recreating the final battle of the Croatian war of independence in 1995.

But he is having trouble finding actors willing to play "the enemy."

Vrdoljak's dilemma is that even in the filmmaker's world of make-believe, Croatian actors refuse to put on the uniform of "Chetniks" -- as rebel Serb fighters were dubbed to evoke the nationalist Serbian units that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II -- while Serbs refuse to take part in a Croatian movie about General Gotovina.

There are efforts afoot in Serbia to rehabilitate the Chetniks as part of a nationalist-inspired movement for historical revisionism, but their specter is still enough to inspire revulsion and fear in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Chetniks' Croatian counterparts are "Ustashe," by the way, similarly a reference to World War II-era fascists.)

In a grim reminder of the fragility of peace in the Balkans and the freshness of wartime wounds for many, a commentator on the Banja Luka-based web portal Buka deadpanned that if live ammunition were provided for the filming of The General, the feature could easily become a documentary.

Vrdoljak contacted a private agency in Belgrade to help him cast his movie and, to sweeten the deal, he is offering 1,000 euros ($1,050) per day of shooting, according to B92.

Even though that's around 10 times what actors usually get when they're hired locally, it is unclear whether any Serbian actors are prepared to take Vrdoljak up on his offer. In the Croatian narrative of the 1991-95 war, Gotovina is a hero; but among Serbs, he is a war criminal.

Mihailo Laptosevic, a Serbian actor who was cast for a minor role in the movie, was quoted as saying in a reference to the pay for five days of filming: "Five thousand euros is not a lot of money if tomorrow you cannot look at yourself in the mirror."

Antun Vrdoljak is also producing a documentary series on Gotovina.
Antun Vrdoljak is also producing a documentary series on Gotovina.

For Vrdoljak, this is a minor setback, as there is otherwise considerable support for his project in Croatia.

Vrdoljak's son-in-law, Goran Visnjic, plays the title role in The General. Visnjic is a talented actor who is currently among Croatia's most prominent actors, and has made a name for himself in Hollywood.

But he also has some direct experience with the events being portrayed. He was performing his military service in the Yugoslav Peple's Army on the eve of the war in Croatia (1991), and on his return home joined the Croatian Army.

Apart from the movie, Vrdoljak is also producing an eight-part miniseries about Gotovina that should be completed in 2018.

Gotovina's life has certainly taken many twists and turns.

He served in the French Foreign Legion before war broke out in Croatia. He was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague for his role in the final Croatian offensive that ended the war, code-named Operation Storm (Oluja). During that operation, in addition to many hundreds of civilian deaths, some 200,000 Serbs were forced to flee their homes in what was described as the war's largest exodus of Serbs.

After spending five years in hiding, Gotovina was eventually apprehended in the Canary Islands and handed over to the ICTY. At the time, his arrest and trial opened the way for Croatia to become a full member of the European Union. Gotovina was sentenced to 24 years in prison "for participating in a joint criminal enterprise to expel Croatian Serbs from the Krajina during the 1995 Operation Storm."

Yet on appeal, Gotovina was acquitted of all charges. When he came home a free man, supporters in Croatia organized a spectacular welcome reception at Zagreb's main square, expecting the general to take up the Croatian nationalist banner.

They were to be disappointed. Instead of the warmongering rhetoric that his audience expected, Gotovina addressed the crowd with a short message: "The war is behind us; let us turn to the future."

In an interview with the Serbian tabloid Kurir in November 2012, Gotovina struck a conciliatory tone and invited Croatian Serbs to return to Croatia. "Croatia is no more my home than it is theirs," he said.

Such a statement coming from a man celebrated as a war hero by one side and reviled as a criminal by the other was widely thought to have been made up -- until the audio recording of the interview surfaced.

Nationalists on both sides cling to misimpressions of Gotovina, and the same can arguably be said of narratives of the war on both sides.

And while it might be hard-pressed for actors, there's no shortage of materiel; the Croatian and Bosnian armed forces have each agreed to provide tanks and other weapons for the filming.

* This blog has been edited to remove a description of Gotovina's reception in Zagreb being organized by "anti-European and pro-Ustashe circles."

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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