Cultural Institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina Under Threat

Appeal by Jeff Spurr

1 February 2012

The principal cultural institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina, situated in its capital, Sarajevo, are under threat of closing permanently.  These include the National and University Library, the National Museum, and the National Gallery.  This is bitter fruit born of the deeply flawed Dayton Peace Accords (arrived at in Dayton, Ohio in November 1995, and signed in Paris on 14 December 1995), which left Bosnia with a semblance of peace but a completely unworkable political arrangement.  International intervention that brought about this situation now needs to be employed to secure a future for these institutions.

Ethnic nationalist agents of the war of aggression, most notably Serb extremists, engaged in more than eliminating or driving out target populations; they sought to obliterate all evidence of the historic cohabitation and collaboration of the ethnic/confessional groups constituting Bosnia’s population, principally Bosniak, Croat, and Serb.   Alongside mosques and churches (and every other sort of building with links to the victims in a particular area), it was the cultural institutions — primary keepers of the evidence of a centuries-old common life and cultural heritage — that had to be destroyed.

Considering the many terrible consequences of the siege of Sarajevo, (April 1992-February 1996), including nearly 11,000 dead citizens, 1,500 of them children, the targeted burning via incendiary phosphorus shells of the National and University Library on August 25-26, 1992 remains an iconic event, seared into the memory of Sarajevo’s citizens of all ethnic groups, and those of us who cared about the fate of the country.  Desperate attempts to save precious books were followed by a commitment to keep the idea of the institution alive during the siege, and concerted efforts by a dedicated staff to build it anew ever since.  Timely and effective efforts preserved most of the collections of the devastated Zemaljski Muzej (National Museum), which underwent a successful restoration with international funds after the war.

Subsequent attempts to sustain these critical cultural institutions have been steadily undermined by the manner in which the Dayton Accords were imposed, forced upon a beleaguered Bosnian government faced with a fourth long winter and threats concerning future support.  By not decisively defeating the aggressors — indeed embracing them in the Dayton deliberations — the international community effectively validated their deplorable designs.  Only the most important of the war criminals have ever been brought to book, and not before the likes of Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia played an important hand in determining Bosnia’s future.  The international actors, most famously represented by the American Richard Holbrooke, employed the very nationalist terms used by the architects of the war, confirming newly-developed ethnic divisions in a country previously notable for its many intermarriages and social amity, and failing altogether to assert the values of a fully democratic, multi-confessional polity. The result: the rewarding of the genocidaires with the establishment of the “Republika Srpska,” occupying half of Bosnia’s land, the rest held by the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Bosniak and Croat nationalists co-exist in an uneasy alliance, progressive elements left with little say in the matter.

Only the Federation and Republika Srpska were endowed with real power, the “national” government so constituted as to have limited resources, prey to sabotage by the secondary entities and its rotating triple presidency, even the cantonal governments having more vitality.  Acceding to ethnic nationalist demands, no ministry of culture was constitutionally mandated at the national level to superintend and go to bat for the most important Bosnian cultural institutions, which have been, in effect, orphaned.  The Serb entity claims that it has its own “national” institutions, as do Croat nationalists in Mostar, denying such status to those institutions that have historically and continue to represent Bosnia as a whole.  Consequently, the true national institutions have limped along, principally with ad hoc allocations from the Bosnian state government based on unexpended year-end balances, and with occasional cantonal subventions.

Due to the absence of an effective constituency in this political muddle, and crisis at the putative top, support for these institutions has essentially come to an end as of late 2011.  So what the extremists failed fully to achieve through concerted violence has now been accomplished by other means.  If the doors are closed for good, the dedicated staffs — unpaid for many months — will disperse, making their reconstitution difficult, leaving the citizenry with no more access than if these institutions had ceased to exist altogether,

Due to the unfortunate legacy of Dayton, the small country of Bosnia has more ministers than any other in the world, and is as dysfunctional as can be imagined.  Despite the desires of progressive elements, the Accords will not be undone or reformed any time soon, and, assuming total resistance from the Republika Srpska, may never be.  However, the international community — and the US in particular — has direct responsibility for this state of affairs, and should see that the Library and Museum remain open for the benefit of all of Bosnia’s citizens and future generations, as well as five other national cultural institutions, most importantly the National Gallery, which houses the full range of the arts, from Orthodox icons to contemporary works in all media.  Only in that way will the people of Bosnia enjoy the opportunity to learn (and re-learn) the truth of their past, representing a creative collaboration of peoples who have a complex common heritage deserving of celebration.  Only then can Bosnia move toward the necessary goal of multi-confessional harmony and fully democratic values.

Direct aid is critical, most importantly to the two indispensable institutions, the National and University Library and the National Museum, but also the National Gallery, if at all possible.  The sums to sustain them are trivial, the consequences of doing so profound, the failure to do so terrible to contemplate.

Jeff Spurr

Manager, Bosnia Library Project, 1996-2005
Chair, Middle East Librarians Association Committee on Iraqi Libraries

Board Member & Secretary, Sabre Foundation

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