Gavrilo Princip’s Afterlife

15. 3. 2017

Over the past two years Russia’s relations with Serbia and Republika Srpska in Bosnia have witnessed a significant turn, the scale of which often remains unnoticed in the West.

This summer, with the approach of the hundredth anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo, and the outbreak of the First World War five weeks later, the memory of the 19-year-old assassin was resurrected in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BaH) and Serbia. And he is remembered not only in Sarajevo: the Canadian tourist guide to Bosnia which encourages us in its title to “Follow in the footsteps of Princip,” is by no means an exception. Less famous in his time than Breivik or Lee Oswald, he is certainly remembered more vividly than dozens of perpetrators of regicides, quite numerous in nineteenth-century and modern Europe.

A Plaque for Hitler

His symbolic meaning is well evidenced by a fact recalled this spring in the wave of celebrations: the plaque unveiled in Sarajevo in 1930 commemorating the assassination was the only “spoil of war” which Adolf Hitler demanded after the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941. When Hitler’s parlor car stood on the rail tracks near the bunker in Monichkirchen, what was brought in as his 52nd birthday present was not the crown jewels from Cetinje in Montenegro or from the treasury in Belgrade, but a heavy brass plaque from Sarajevo…

The fact that even the Führer had a vision of the consumptive 19-year-old, in whom he wanted to see the epitome of “Slavic cunning” and at the same time the destroyer of former Austria, is the best illustration that anyone can imagine Princip in his or her own way. Last spring, the most original interpretation was presented by some leftist activists who wanted to make him a symbol of rebellion against all kinds of oppressions personified by Archduke Ferdinand, from patriarchy to imperialism. Indeed, a significant role in the development of Princip’s fascinations was played by “libertarian” thinkers from the poet Walt Whitman to the classics of anarchism such as Bakunin’s. However, making him an “icon of rebellion,” styled partly after Che Guevara and partly after the characters from Hair, eagerly reaching for a joint, seems to be a risky example of presentism.

This is how he is shown by the Serbian Egeria of the left, a columnist and playwright Biljana Srbljanović. Her play “The Tomb is Too Small for Me” (Mali me by ovaj tomb), staged and directed by the avant-garde Polish director Michał Zadara in the Vienna Schauspielhaus, was aptly summed up by an Austrian critic as “pot, petting & party,” which is rather a projection of dreams and ideas of the playwright than an attempt to find the truth about the hero from a century back. And what can we say about a group of left-wing activists from the former Yugoslavia who during a happening staged in Sarajevo donned Princip masks and chanted, “We are occupied by fascism and capitalism”?

But such things are happening on only on the fringes: the vast majority of Serbian initiatives commemorating Princip in the spring and summer of 2014 were attempts at renewing (through re-enactment) and reviving the narrative, showing Princip as one of the founding fathers of Yugoslavia, the state of southern Slavs, an activist of the “Young Bosnia” organization, seeking the liberation of all the peoples inhabiting the lands of Bosnia from Austrian imperial oppression.

Two things deserve our attention: the clearly polemical nature of these initiatives and the fact that at least in one case the celebrations were sponsored by the government, organized with the participation of Prime Ministers of both Serbia and Republika Srpska.

An Angel in Andrićgrad

Serbs have many reasons to feel “at odds with the world.” Commenting on many key issues—from disputes over responsibility for the war in Bosnia in 1992–1995 to the assessment of the legitimacy of proclaiming sovereignty by Kosovo—they are entitled to firm (even if controversial) assessments, and they may feel that they defend views which are unpopular or even rejected by others. Serbian journalists are indignant that the world is ignoring their country (many essays on Princip began with calls for “bringing an unjustly forgotten figure back from oblivion”). At the same time, when Serbian past is discussed somewhere, they are not really able to see themselves in a role other than that of a victim. This is probably a side-effect of the events, debates and court cases from the last 20 years—but it does not bode well for the future.

Worthy of note are also the well though-out and far-reaching actions of the authorities of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia: not only the decision to turn the memory of Princip into an important part of the historical policy of Banja Luka, but above all the momentum and scale of involvement in the main celebrations held on the anniversary of the assassination of Ferdinand. They took place in Andrićgrad, which is a combination of an open-air museum, a classical museum and a “stage set for a historical reconstruction,” built since 2011 on the outskirts of Višegrad by the director, animator and “man-orchestra” Emir Kusturica.

About the artistic career, ambitions and evolution of Kusturica we had an opportunity to write on the pages of the Aspen Review two years ago: here it is sufficient to recall that the charismatic 60-year-old has for several years been a strong advocate of Serbian arguments in the dispute about the past and present of Bosnia, Kosovo and the Balkans. Having hung up his camera (though he still promises to return to directing films) he got involved in projects combining politics, culture and large scale building development. First, on his property located in Serbia he built Drvengrad—an archetypal “Serbian village,” enriched with tourist infrastructure and state of the art screening rooms, where he has been organizing an international film festival for several years. In June 2011 he started an even more ambitious project demanding even more money: in the place where the Yugoslav Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric set the plot of his best-known novel The Bridge on the Drina, he decided to erect a town named in his honor.

Andrić City, that is Andrićgrad, was financed largely from grants provided by the autonomous authorities of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia, within the borders of which Višegrad lies. The Father of the Nation—that is two times Prime Minister, and the President of RS of four years Milorad Dodik—was the principal figure in the celebrations. Walking by his side was the Prime Minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić, and both were guided by Kusturica, who also choreographed the all-day celebrations.

Some see a creative spin on Fellini in Kusturica’s style, while others see a lot of opera buffo and camp, but it is certainly recognizable at the first glance. And so it was this time: choirs sang, gigantic mosaics depicting Princip and his companions flickered, high mass was celebrated there by the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church (which usually takes place on the assassination anniversary in one of the Kosovan monasteries), and alighting on the stage was a little unorthodox, but much feathery-winged “angel of freedom” with features of a certain 19-year-old from a century ago. The presence of the Prime Minister of a neighboring country was tangible evidence of the special relations between Belgrade and Banja Luka, and the information that Dodik has already allocated a dozen million euro for the construction of Andrićgrad shows that he attaches a great importance to historical policy and identity politics. It is to become the foundation of the growing independence of Republika Srpska, therefore it was not accidental that the Prime Minister stated in his speech: “Today international occupants try to impose on us [the Serbs] what Austria failed to impose on us one hundred years ago.”

Celebrations in Andrićgrad were graced by as many as three choirs, but before we list all the basses and baritones singing the glory of Princip, let us take a brief look at the actors on the international stage who are most vitally interested in the situation in Bosnia. All gestures and campaigns, even if intended primarily as a symbolic rivalry between Serb and Bosnian versions of history, do not occur on a deserted island: other powers and states are party to them.

Russia’s Balkan Leverage

The European Union and its member states are constantly present in Bosnia and Herzegovina in dozens of ways and on many levels: as the creators and executors of a political framework for the entire process of normalization in Bosnia (High Representative of the EU, Peace Implementation Council dominated by the “forces of the West” and EUFOR peacekeepers); as a very distant, but longed-for perspective, which the country is trying to pursue through the neverending process of “accession negotiations” and through Croatia its direct neighbour; and last but not least as the largest economic partner.

But this is just one of the powers which want to make their presence felt in the Balkans: Russia, not only because of its position, but also because of past events and the hopes invested in the nineteenth century in Moscow and St. Petersburg, possesses a special “Archimedean point,” which gives it such a leverage that even a very limited involvement meets with a disproportionately large resonance and gratitude.

This “Balkan leverage” worked very well already in the 1990s and in the beginning of the new century. Moscow, although not pursuing an active Balkan policy and supporting both the Dayton peace and the progressive emancipation of Kosovo from Serbia, remained a point of reference and hope for many Serb communities and political groups, not only in Serbia but in the whole Western Balkans, from the “diaspora” in Macedonia and Kosovo to the power elite in Republika Srpska in Bosnia.

We should distinguish between them, because the “paleo-communists,” whose memory (and often also more specific connection) goes back to the USSR, are different from people perceiving Russia as an embodiment of social order and a champion of Orthodoxy. Another group yet are the Serbs for whom the “disappearance” of Kosovo is too deep a trauma in the symbolic, historical and identity sense to be able to overcome it and who are desperately looking for someone in the world who would share their sentiments or at least offer them some kindness. All these communities have longed for gestures of solidarity from Russia and are able to appreciate—and even, it seems, overestimate—them.

Until recently, they could not count on too much, except for the Russian non-recognition of the sovereignty of Kosovo, its distance to the attempts at unifying Bosnia at the expense of the interests of the local Serbs and—always well received while inexpensive—cultural initiatives. However, over the past two years Russia’s relations with Serbia and Republika Srpska in Bosnia (and, to a lesser extent, with Montenegro) have witnessed a significant turn, the scale of which often remains unnoticed in the West.

The Natural Gas Juggernaut

Perhaps the most important Russian “juggernaut,” crashing the existing scruples and loyalties of the Serbian elite, is the prospect of the construction of the South Stream pipeline and related investments. A detailed description of the games around the Russian pipeline in the last few years would expand this article out of proportion: suffice it to say here that both Belgrade and Banja Luka see the perspective of the pipeline running through their territory as an even greater opportunity than the EU Member States from Bulgaria to Austria involved in this initiative, and attach even less importance to reservations formulated more and more vocally by Brussels.

The reorientation of attitudes in Belgrade was easier to notice, because it coincided with the changes brought about by the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections: in 2012 a parliamentary majority coalition embraced two groupings—SNS and SPS—with roots (and sentiments) reaching back to the times of Milosević, and Tomislav Nikolić, one of the leaders of the SNS community, became president of Serbia. The Serb-Russian relations have grown in their intensity. (To name only a few: the several meetings between Nikolić and Putin; the Declaration on Strategic Partnership signed in May 2013; the “pilgrimage” of leaders of the SNS and SPS, Nikola Vučić and Ivica Dačić, to Moscow in the spring of 2014 when faced with difficulties in forming a new cabinet; or a general support of the media, parliamentarians and the public for—to quote the new Prime Minister Nikola Vučić’s statement during his visit to the Kremlin on July 8, 2014—”the Russian peace initiatives in Ukraine.”)

Much less attention has been devoted by the media to Bosnia, where the ambassador of the Russian Federation, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, lavishes Milorad Dodik with favors. The game he plays brings to mind the characters from Ivo Andrić’s another novel, The Days of the Consuls, proudly presenting the game played in the early nineteenth century in Travnik by the representatives of European superpowers: France and Austria. For Botsan-Kharchenko is capable of tricks in the spirit of Metternich; with increasing determination he defends the interests of Republika Srpska at the Peace Implementation Council, in talks with the EU High Commissioner he opposes any initiatives (though not very numerous now and launched with less and less conviction) aimed at unifying Bosnia, and—as sarcastic journalists report—he spends more time in Banja Luka than in Sarajevo.

This is also followed by Russian involvement in the energy sector: Russian investors (Zarubezhneft) bought and modernized the refinery in Brod Bosanskim (RS) and now shower Dodik with promises that Republika Srpska will host one branch of the South Stream. In April this year it was announced that Russia is ready to provide RS with loans totalling 270 million EUR, which would allow it to completely ignore the appeals and recommendations of the IMF.

Only in the light of this information you can appreciate the commitment with which the Russian media followed the “dusting-off of Princip” and recollected the anti-imperialist avant-la-lettre. The culmination of Russian involvement in the celebration was the semi-official presence of the “Alexandrov Choir” at the Andrićgrad celebrations, the strongest musical representation of the Russian armed forces. The melancholy waltz On the Hills of Manchuria resounding in the hills above the Drina was an eloquent proof that not only fans of the old limos from Sarajevo dream of reconstructions of the events from a century back.

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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