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Balkans Without Borders

Thursday 6 September 2018

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (right) talks with father Sava Janjic at the Visoki Decani monastery in May 2009.

Sava Janjic, the outspoken Serbian Orthodox priest whose decades-long public empathy for ethnic Serbs and Albanians alike suffering at the hands of "immoral and destructive" nationalists, is worried that any deal to redraw the border between Kosovo and Serbia would be costly for the entire Balkans.

Nicknamed “cybermonk” for his e-mails and correspondence with foreign journalists and other outsiders during the Kosovo War of the late '90s, the popular abbot of Visoki Decani, a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo, warned amid recent talk of a possible territory swap against an ethnically based solution to Belgrade and Pristina's differences.

“The lessons of history have been forgotten," Janjic told Vreme, "and that's why we must warn people while there's still time that the Europeanization of this region cannot be based on the principle of ethnic or territorial partitioning."

Much of the international "conventional wisdom" suggests that altering borders -- reportedly already under consideration by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi -- could have explosive consequences in Kosovo and beyond.

But there are indications that Janjic's suspicion is not so widespread in Serbia -- apart from a few NGOs and some opposition leaders, there has been little public criticism of the rumored proposal, despite concerns that it would be an implicit or explicit recognition of Kosovar sovereignty. And ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo are mostly in favor of the swap, some reports suggest, perhaps in expectation that Serbian citizenship might follow.

Janjic has therefore drawn fire from some local media and nationalists on both sides. And the abbot has noticed.

“I have to admit that the threats and the unscrupulous media campaign [against me] directed by the authorities in Belgrade and sometimes also by some [Kosovar Albanian] Pristina-based media -- according to whom I am, in the first case, an American spy and, in the second, a Russian one -- are reminiscent of the threats that were made against Oliver Ivanovic,” Janjic told the Belgrade magazine Vreme recently.

That is a reference to an ethnic Serb politician from northern Kosovo who was widely praised for demonstrating cooperation and tolerance in divided times before he was gunned down in North Mitrovica in January. Ivanovic was born in a village near Janjic's Decani monastery.

Janjic has nearly 20,000 followers on Facebook and is active on Twitter, posting in both Serbian and English.

Despite the venerable status of the Visoki Decani monastery (it was built in the 14th century and has been a protected heritage site for decades), its abbot does not speak for the Serbian Orthodox Church.

But there are also ethnic-Serb communities in the areas in question that could find themselves unwilling residents of Kosovo if the proposed “border adjustment” became reality -- communities that might welcome Janjic's skepticism.​

Path To Ethnic Cleansing?

But since his Vreme interview, Janjic's Twitter feed has become a target of insults and profanity over his stance on the border issue. He has been labeled a “traitor to Serbia’s national interests” and worse. One tweet attacked him for being an advocate of Kosovo’s membership in UNESCO. (The Decani monastery is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, along with several other medieval monuments in Kosovo, but Serbia opposes Kosovo’s membership in that and other international bodies.) Another post suggested -- rightly or wrongly -- that Janjic once held an umbrella for former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is unpopular among Serbs for her role in the Clinton administration’s decision to intervene in 1999.

In fact, Janjic has stood out then and in the ensuing two decades for his resistance to the notion of one-sided solutions or justice for one community over the other.

"The peoples of Kosovo and Metohia are living through the most difficult days in their history," Janjic wrote in the forward to the book Crucified Kosovo in 1999-2000. "The ethnic Albanians experienced their days of suffering, exile and death inflicted by the immoral and destructive policy of [Yugoslav and then Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic's regime. Now the Serbs are being exposed to suffering, exile and death from the immoral and destructive policy of the ethnic Albanian nationalists."

In an article for Open Democracy in 2002, Janjic insisted that "democracy cannot be built on ethnic discrimination," adding, "The priority for Kosovo should be the building of a stable, civil society which would respect human rights and freedoms regardless of one’s ethnic or religious background. Only thus will all its residents be able to overcome the anachronisms of the past."

More recently, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, a convicted war criminal, has described Janjic as a "notorious traitor."

“I would never attack the church, but I would [attack] some of its individual dignitaries, if they wrong their own people and the interests of the state,” Seselj said, adding in a reference to other convicted or accused war criminals who have come before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia: “I've been attacking Sava Janjic for a long time. This is a man who wanted [former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic, [former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan] Karadzic, and [Bosnian Serb General Ratko] Mladic to be handed over to The Hague."

If not for his monk’s robe, Seselj vowed, he would “give [Janjic] a good slap.”

It is Janjic’s role as abbot of one of Serbs' most venerated institutions -- the Decani monastery has been referred to as “the cradle of the Serbian nation” -- that lends weight to his views. Janjic also appears to enjoy the respect of ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Kosovo Liberation Army political leader Adem Demaci (left) meets with father Sava Janjic at the Decani monastery in October 1998.
Kosovo Liberation Army political leader Adem Demaci (left) meets with father Sava Janjic at the Decani monastery in October 1998.

Of the rumored territory swap, Janjic said: "I am especially worried about the part that talks about the border separating Serbs and Albanians, which implies that where one [ethnic group] lives, the other will be absent, and vice versa. This is a retrograde model that is very much in line with the policy of ethnic cleansing implemented during the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia -- and so it's unsurprising that the proposal, which has the backing, albeit for their own reasons, of both Vucic and Thaci, also has the support of one of the chief ideologues of ethnic cleansing, Vojislav Seselj."

The executive director of the North Mitrovica-based NGO Advocacy Center for Democratic Culture, Dusan Radakovic, cited complex dynamics on the ground in Kosovo among the reasons the outspoken Janjic is under fire.

But he also noted that the Serbian Orthodox Church had not yet issued any public reaction to rumors of any territorial swap between Serbia and Kosovo.

"We have yet to hear from other church dignitaries, and even the patriarch himself has not said anything very specific," Radakovic said, adding that "a solution that pleases everyone will not come easily."

"Both sides will have to swallow a bitter pill to make that happen."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
A screen grab from the cult Yugoslav movie Walter Defends Sarajevo, starring Bata Zivojinovic as the eponymous anti-Nazi resistance hero.

August in Sarajevo is dominated by that city's now-famous film festival -- a defiant child of the Bosnian war and since then arguably the most important cultural event in the country.

But while the festival showcases new movies and talent, at least some of the limelight this year has been stolen by a tribute to a film made nearly half a century ago, in a country that no longer exists.

A new multimedia museum dedicated to the cult movie Walter Defends Sarajevo is due to open later this year, and organizers hope it draws a good number of tourists -- especially from China.

The movie, released in 1972, paid homage to the Yugoslav partisan resistance to the Nazi occupation of the city during World War II, coordinated by the eponymous Walter, the code name of Vladimir Peric.

Inspired by real events -- the historical Walter (Peric) was killed during the liberation of the city on April 6, 1945 -- the film has a "mythic power," according to filmmaker Jasmin Durakovic, director of the Sarajevo film center. It was a triumph of Yugoslav and Bosnian filmmaking, Durakovic told RFE/RL.

'Das Ist Walter!'

The promotional event for the new museum took place in Park Princeva (Princes' Park), an elevated spot on the outskirts that affords a spectacular view of the city. Durakovic said it was chosen because it was the setting for the movie's iconic final scene.

The Germans had been unable to destroy the underground resistance in Sarajevo, or to identify and capture its leader, the elusive Walter. As the movie closes, it is spring 1945 and the commanding Nazi officer is taking his leave. He meets his successor at what is now Park Princeva and announces that he has finally solved the mystery of Walter's identity: "I have spent the war hunting Walter, but it is only now, as I depart, that I finally know who he is." The other man impatiently demands to be told, but the officer says he can do better: "I will show him to you!" He then points at the cityscape spread out before them and explains: "Do you see this city? Das ist Walter! (That is Walter!)"

"[Park Princeva] is a legendary place, and we have already designated it as the 'Das ist Walter' location," said Durakovic.

The promotional event was well attended, and it was announced that the museum dedicated to the movie will be open to the public by the end of the year. Near the end of the event, recounted Durakovic, a Chinese woman ran up to him and asked breathlessly if she could bring her husband and children. She had been passing by and recognized the face of the movie's protagonist, actor Bata Zivojinovic (Walter), on one of the original posters (which will be among the exhibits in the new museum) and wanted her family -- tourists in the city -- to see the promotion.

A poster for the Walter Defends Sarajevo film with both the original title and its Chinese translation. (file photo)
A poster for the Walter Defends Sarajevo film with both the original title and its Chinese translation. (file photo)

The film's apparent popularity in China has undoubtedly contributed to its cult status. It is thanks to its Chinese audience since its release in the 1970s that Walter Defends Sarajevo is the most-watched Yugoslav movie of all time.

Pioneering Foreign Film

In the late 1970s the movie was screened not only in Chinese movie theaters but also appeared frequently on Chinese television. Walter was first screened in China in 1976, as the country emerged from the Cultural Revolution and its resultant social and cultural desolation.

Bosnian director Hajrudin Krvavac's war movie was a pioneering foreign film in China at that time, so for millions of Chinese it represented a rare glimpse into an unfamiliar world.

Now, decades later, Chinese visitors to Europe are signing up for guided tours of Belgrade and Sarajevo that include locations where Walter Defends Sarajevo was filmed in the Bosnian capital, the Belgrade house in which actor Zivojinovic lived, and museums in both Serbia and Bosnia linked to World War II and the partisan struggle.

A model of the planned multimedia museum dedicated to Walter Defends Sarajevo, which was presented at this year's annual film festival in the Bosnian capital.
A model of the planned multimedia museum dedicated to Walter Defends Sarajevo, which was presented at this year's annual film festival in the Bosnian capital.

Apart from Walter, there is a recent agreement of a mutual visa-free regime between China and Bosnia.

By at least one estimate, more than 50,000 Chinese tourists are expected to visit Bosnia in 2018, and next year that number could rise to 70,000.

So Belgrade and Sarajevo, on opposite sides of a conflict in the 1990s, are seemingly brought together again thanks to their shared historical and artistic legacy -- preserved in Chinese popular culture.

A Chinese beer brand called "Walter" featured the face of Zivojinovic, who passed away two years ago and whose widow was a guest of honor during the Chinese president's visit to Belgrade in 2016.

Lu Fei, the actor who dubbed Walter's voice in Chinese, touted his "love for this story," according to the China Daily a few years ago. "Every time I was introduced to others, I was called 'Walter,' and people were always amazed," he added.

Potent Myth

Krvavac died during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, although he lived to see the slogan "We are all Walter!" chanted by peace protesters on the eve of another war in Bosnia: The first shots were fired just as the city was about to mark the 47th anniversary of its liberation from Nazi occupation on April 6, also the day of the real Walter's death.

Citizens were gathering that April in defense of the multiethnic makeup of the city. But more than banners and slogans were required to defeat the mostly Serb forces encircling the city.

Walter, as embodied by the city's population -- as the German officer in the movie implied -- could not triumph again, and Bosnia is today a country ethnically divided for the first time in its history.

But the myth of Walter remains potent, not least among the Chinese. There is speculation that a remake of Walter Defends Sarajevo is in the works, with a Chinese director and a Bosnian and Serbian cast; but the original film's appeal endures.

With Chinese tourists arriving by the tens of thousands, Walter (both real and fictional) is once again doing his bit for Sarajevo -- this time by boosting tourism in a country whose economy has yet to recover fully from 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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