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Turkish Nobel laureate author Orhan Pamuk poses during an interview at his house in Istanbul in Febuary 2015.

Whether he likes it or not, former Croatian President Stipe Mesic will officially be declared an honorary citizen of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. That was the city council's decision on February 28 despite Mesic's public statement that he would not accept the honor.

What rankles with Mesic are the circumstances that led to the decision, following an embarrassing about-face by the local authorities.

This year, the honorary citizenship was meant to have been given to award-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. The seven-member selection commission had voted unanimously to back the nomination, put forward by Buybook, the Sarajevo publisher of the Bosnian translations of the Nobel laureate's books.

However, the vote was repeated two weeks later and this time resulted in 4-3 opposition to the proposal. On second thought, the commission reasoned, Pamuk "had not done much for the city of Sarajevo."

The award is given annually, and foreign nationals are eligible if they are deemed to have contributed to Sarajevo's advancement, "the improvement of international relations, and the values of solidarity, democracy, humanitarianism, and mutual tolerance." Previous recipients include Austrian politician Valentin Inzko, currently the high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, and U.S. journalist Christiane Amanpour.

Damir Uzunovic, the owner and director of Buybook and the original proponent of the idea to honor Pamuk, sees the city council's reversal of its decision as driven by fear of angering an increasingly assertive Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"It's clear that the members of the commission wished to spare the current Turkish regime a decision that would have been contrary to its wishes," he told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Others saw it as a local power play, a way to show precisely who's in charge.

"It's not about Orhan Pamuk's standing in Turkey, or the popularity of his works; it's a signal to the people of Bosnia, not Turkey or the Turkish government," said Nedzad Ibrahimovic, a philosophy professor from Tuzla, northeast of Sarajevo. "If someone is going to be honored, and the world media report on that impending award, and suddenly that decision is reversed, the message to Bosnian citizens is clear: If we can prevent you from honoring Pamuk, we can also stop you from thinking with your own head."

The withdrawal of the honor will not hurt Pamuk, Ibrahimovic said, but is definitely Sarajevo's loss. "It's simply a shame. It's embarrassing to read about it in the media," he said on RFE/RL's Balkan Service's Most program.

The president of the Bosnian PEN Center, Goran Simic, also reacted to the Sarajevo authorities' decision, issuing a "sincere apology to Orhan Pamuk" in the name of the country's writers "for the deep state of xenophobia that plagues Bosnia."

"It would have been an honor to call Pamuk a fellow citizen, as someone who has spoken out on the Armenian genocide, and who, in his literary works drawing on different periods of his own country's history, has addressed the suppression of the freedom of speech by those in power. It would have been an honor to host one of the most renowned and most read contemporary authors, as a symbol of multicultural Sarajevo and Bosnia, in the same way in which we were proud to honor American writer Susan Sontag," Simic said in his statement, adding that the city council had "brought shame" to Sarajevo with its reversal of the decision to honor Pamuk.

The decision was also described as "disastrous and shameful" by Bosnian writer Ivan Lovric. "Actions like these are proper to regimes that we characterize as repressive, closed, and undemocratic," Lovric wrote on his blog.

He pointed to the fact that a municipal commission had reached this decision to deny Pamuk honorary citizenship "in the name of a city and its citizens, many of whom had lived through its siege (1992-95), defending the city's multiethnic character, had participated in the organization of a Winter Olympics (1984), and who firmly believe that Sarajevo is an open city."

According to Lovric, the council's decision made the city seem "small and provincial."

Bosnian director Dino Mustafic sees the actions of the city authorities as an act of self-censorship and subservience to the Turkish government.

"The explanation given [about Pamuk having 'not done much for Sarajevo'] is absurd and senseless. He is a Nobel prizewinner, one of the greatest living writers, and his contribution to the global cultural heritage is indisputable. There wasn't even any direct pressure from Turkey. Merely a desire to avoid upsetting the sultan in Ankara," Mustafic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Following the public outcry, Sarajevo Mayor Abdulah Skaka issued a statement defending the decision to confer honorary citizenship to Mesic, arguing that the proposal to honor Pamuk did not secure a majority of votes; it was therefore not a question of taking the award away from Pamuk to give it to someone else.

Former Croatian President Stipe Mesic declined the honorary citizenship on offer.
Former Croatian President Stipe Mesic declined the honorary citizenship on offer.

However, Mesic himself was left unimpressed, and declined the honor. "A writer and a politician simply cannot be in the same competition. It's clearly a political decision, and I did not want to be a part of it. I am still a friend of Sarajevo and Bosnia, but I cannot participate in something like this," he said.

Despite the protestations from city hall, with their change of heart the Sarajevo authorities have angered not only those who consider Pamuk a worthy champion of the civilizational values that the city itself symbolized during its siege, but also the man they chose to honor instead. An own goal, it seems, no matter how one looks at it.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Police officers of the Republika Srpska march during a parade in Banja Luka on January 9.

"Good morning. Is another war brewing in Bosnia?"

That was the opening of a Croatian state TV morning program on February 16. The Zagreb studio's question was then posed via satellite to Vlado Azinovic, a professor of political science in Sarajevo who stood outside in his winter coat as life in the Bosnian capital unfolded behind him. The show's anchor pressed Azinovic to concede that a new paramilitary formation was preparing for another conflict and that "Wahhabi-Salafi groups" enjoyed Bosnian government support.

The issue of such purported groups became a hot topic after the appearance of a YouTube video, titled Askeri Winter Camp 2018, in which children could be seen getting Islamic instruction and training.

The clip unleashed a storm of reactions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the wider region. Some of the alarming headlines that appeared in Bosnian and Serbian media included: Wahhabis Training Boys To Fight, The Military Camp For Kids, and Askeri Training Young Warriors.

Meanwhile, the leadership (Rijaset) of the Bosnian Islamic Community said in a statement to N1 TV that it had no official information of any religious education being administered by the group in question; nor had the group requested any support or input from the Islamic Community.

"The video and its publication should be placed in its proper context," Azinovic said, adding that 10 days earlier an actual, suspected paramilitary formation from Serbia had marched fully armed through the streets of Banja Luka, in Republika Srpska, during official celebrations marking that northern Bosnian entity's controversial statehood day. "And once they had changed out of their uniforms, they were received by members of the [Republika Srpska] government, before that armed group returned home to Serbia."

The Banja Luka formation was part of a group that calls itself Serbian Honor and claims to be a humanitarian organization. Some of its members, however, reportedly fought on the side of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Asked whether the purported "Askeri" training camp was evidence of rising Islamic extremism in Bosnia, Azinovic answered that "for the past 30 years, we have been seeing a rise in all forms of extremism in Bosnia." Azinovic has argued that Bosnian authorities, lacking meaningful economic or social policies, are manufacturing fear among voters -- especially on the eve of elections. "They have nothing else to offer."

He warned against underestimating the effect of what he referred to as "domestic hybrid warfare" that creates tensions that can easily escalate into bloodshed.

Thawing The 'Frozen' War?

The reports concerning paramilitary units were followed by news of major arms purchases by the Bosnian Serb police from neighboring Serbia.

There was no attempt by the Bosnian Serb authorities to downplay the purchase. On the contrary, on February 16, Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik claimed that "they have taken our military, but they won't take away our police."

Dodik also visited a police training center near Banja Luka that is due to be officially inaugurated on April 4. Local media have suggested that instructors at the center will be Russians, although that has not been confirmed, and they will be training Bosnian Serb police to "fight against terrorism." Dodik added that the purchase of 2,500 automatic rifles was legal and that all the necessary permits had been secured.

However, concern over the apparent move to arm Republika Srpska police was expressed by EU High Representative Valentin Inzko, among others. Inzko said the police in all of his native Austria have only 400 automatic rifles at their disposal.

Alex Kliment, the Eurasia Group's director of global research, also drew attention to the saber-rattling in the Balkans and its wider context to CBS. Kliment warned that the combination of "local ethnic tensions or rivalries" and "geopolitical tension" was highly combustible, especially in this region of the world. He suggested that the Bosnian government's stated desire to eventually join the EU and NATO had prompted Russia to ramp up its involvement in the Balkans, with the aim of destabilizing that country.

"It's a very dangerous situation," Kliment said. "The horrific Yugoslav civil war never really ended, it was more sort of frozen. And things like this can unfreeze that quickly." Adding more weapons to the mix only made this outcome more likely, in his opinion.

An Unwatched Pot Boils

It seems clear that the "Askeri" are not boy scouts, just as members of Serbian Honor are not humanitarian workers. Regardless of whether they are marching in the streets or gathering clicks on YouTube, both are reviving old antagonisms and feeding the narrative of an unfinished war.

Kliment suggested that neither NATO nor the United States was going "to focus a whole lot of attention on this.... There are...bigger issues playing out. This was a part of the world that spilled into civil war because no one was paying attention."

Bosnian elections are due in October. Dodik, who has already served two terms as president and two more as prime minister of Republika Srpska, is seeking to join the presidency of a country (Bosnia) that he wants to dismantle. It is unclear how far he might be prepared to go to achieve his goal, or whether he would risk another war.

He could be a nationalist or merely a pragmatist convinced that nationalism is politically expedient. But that sort of thinking was also attributed to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, and then, too, the West was distracted elsewhere while the Balkans slid into internecine conflict.

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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