June 27, 2014 / 3:38 PM / 5 years ago

Serbs unveil statue to 'hero' who set Europe marching to war

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Serbs in Bosnia unveiled a statue on Friday of the man who shot dead the heir to the Habsburg throne a century ago, thumbing their nose at the country’s official commemoration of the act that triggered World War One.

A statue of Gavrilo Princip is seen after an opening ceremony in East Sarajevo, June 27, 2014. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

The 2-metre (6.6 feet) bronze statue of Gavrilo Princip, unveiled by the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, underscored the gulf between Bosnia’s Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks in how they view the assassination that lit the fuse for the Great War.

The centenary falls on Saturday, and will be officially marked in Sarajevo with a concert by the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra, which leaders of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs are boycotting.

Serbs see the 19-year-old assassin, a Bosnian Serb, as a heroic fighter for the freedom of all southern Slavs from centuries of imperial occupation over the Balkans. To others, he was a nationalist terrorist whose gunshot heralded four years of slaughter and suffering, as more than 10 million soldiers died and empires crumbled.

The centenary commemorations have, to a degree, been taken hostage by the wounds of a more recent war, when 100,000 people, mainly Bosniaks, were killed between 1992 and 1995 as Yugoslavia disintegrated.

“These fighters for freedom 100 years ago have given us the direction to follow for the next 100 years,” Nebojsa Radmanovic, a Serb who shares the Bosnian presidency with a Bosniak and a Croat, said as he unveiled the statue in Serb-controlled East Sarajevo.

Around a thousand people, including children, watched as a young man, acting the part of Princip, waved a gun and silenced the music of a waltz by Austrian composer Johann Strauss.

“Who wants to live should die, who wants to die should live!” he shouted. A Serb folk dance ensued.


Austrian President Heinz Fischer will be guest of honor at the Sarajevo concert, the centerpiece of a string of events to mark the anniversary.

Serbs will hold their own events in the eastern town of Visegrad, where they will unveil a mosaic of Princip and re-enact the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. The Belgrade Philharmonic will play music by Vivaldi.

To many in the Balkans, Visegrad remains synonymous with a wave of brutal ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks by Bosnian Serb forces in the first months of the 1992-95 war. To many Bosniaks, Princip was driven by the same nationalist, territorial ambitions.

Serbs are sensitive to what they see as attempts to link the wars that opened and closed the 20th century, and to pin the blame on them.

“The Sarajevo politics is always aimed against the Serb Republic,” Jovan Mojisilovic, who played Princip in Friday’s play, said, in reference to the autonomous Serb region in Bosnia formed after the war.

“They are even bringing the Vienna Philharmonic - a pure provocation!” he told Reuters.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who frequently threatens Serb secession from Bosnia, sponsored Friday’s statue unveiling, an event some analysts saw as part of a political campaign ahead of a parliamentary election in October.

The peoples of Bosnia “are still divided,” Dodik said. “With regards to the Sarajevo assassination, we think and work differently.”

Editing by Matt Robinson and Mark Trevelyan

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