Sarajevo at 100: ready for World War 5?

June 28, St. Vitus’ Day, marks a century since the Serb nationlist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, thereby starting World War I. Commemorations in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, the scene of the 1914 assassination, were predictably—indeed, inevitably—contested by the two political entities that make up contemporary Bosnia: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, supported by Muslims and Croats, and the Republika Srpska or Serb Republic. (See map.) The Institute for War & Peace Reporting notes that the commemorations were boycotted by Serb leaders, who instead held an alternative event in the Republika Srpska. Aleksandar Vucic, prime minister of Serbia, charged that what was supposed to be a joint commemoration had been co-opted by the Federation. Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic said the event amounted to an “accusation” against his people. Nebojsa Radmanovic, Serb member of the tripartite Bosnian presidency, declined his invitation in a letter to Austria’s President Heinz Fischer, stating that the Sarajevo city government had abused the commemoration and “subordinated its meaning to the context of the 1990s civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

The Guardian notes that Bosnia’s capital is itself divided, with the administration of Istocno (east) Sarajevo operating separately under the Republika Srpska, the two sides not even joined by public transport. Even in emergency cases, citizens of Istocno Sarajevo cannot be treated in the city’s general hospital, and instead have to be taken 120 miles to Banja Luka, the Republika Srpska’s capital. In Istocno Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip is still “lauded by many as a national hero.” Milorad Dodik, the Republika Srpska’s president, is slated to open a new park to be named after the assassin.

The fiction of Bosnia as a unified state is pretty transparent, and the centennial of the assassination comes as other ghosts from World War I are returning to haunt the world political stage.  The war in Ukraine, like that in Bosnia 20 years ago, pits a former Austro-Hungarian sphere against a former Russian sphere. But while Russia had merely been the political patron of the Bosnian Serbs, it is directly involved in the Ukraine fighting today (with only a thin veneer of autonomy for its proxy forces, analogous to the relationship between Serbia proper and Bosnian Serb rebels in the ’90s). With the implosion of Iraq and Syria, there is growing talk of the end of Sykes-Picot, the 1916 Anglo-French agreement that redrew the borders of the Middle East. The Damascus regime can also be seen as Russia’s proxy. The most terrifying possibility is for the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts to converge into a global showdown between Russia and the West, much as the Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Turks and Serb struggle against the Austrian empire converged in World War I.

Of course, we argue that the next world war would actually be World War 5, the Cold War having been World War III, and the post-9-11 “war on terrorism” World War 4. It’s a grim irony that that the horrific developments in Iraq may be the most powerful prophylactic against this convergence: Russia and the West have every reason to unite against the threat of jihadism. This common interest could propel the situation back into World War 4 —which is plenty dystopian enough, thank you.

And of course, Russia’s involvement in World War I was aborted by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. While Bolshevism eventually morphed into the nightmare of Stalinism, 1917 still represented an historical opening—and a repudiation of imperialist war by one of the world’s great powers. Just a couple of years ago, when the Arab Revolution and Occupy Wall Street were on a roll, we almost dared to hope that another such opening could be on the horizon. Has the opportunity yet been completely squandered?

  1. Glimmer of hope from Sarajevo
    Bosnia’s Jews and Muslims on Nov. 7 marked the bicentenary of the rescue of a dozen Jews from an Ottoman governor’s prison, hailing their liberation by Sarajevo Muslims as an example of co-existence at a time of rising global sectarian hatred. The day of the 1819 rescue, which happened amid a popular uprising in the city, against Turkish governor Mehmed Ruzdi Pasha, is a holiday for Sarajevo’s Jews, known as Purim di Saray. The governor had sought a huge ransom to spare the Jews’ lives.

    “Bosnian Muslims and Jews are one body,” said Bosnia’s top Muslim cleric Husein Kavazovic. “Amid the ever-rising evil of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia…we are renewing our pledge that we will remain good neighbors who will watch over each other as we did in the past.” (Reuters, Sarajevo Times)