SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Sarajevo marked 100 years on Saturday since the murder of an Austrian prince lit the fuse for World War One, with a concert by Vienna’s premier orchestra trying to send a message of unity to a divided country and a continent facing new faultlines.
The concert, carried live by dozens of European broadcasters but attended by only a select elite, recalled the days of the Habsburg Empire, in the city that hastened its demise with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by 19-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip.
The murder set the Great Powers marching to war; more than 10 million soldiers died and empires crumbled, sowing the seeds for World War Two and much of the strife now wracking the Middle East.
Sarajevo closed the century under siege by Bosnian Serb forces during Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Still dealing with the aftermath, Bosnia’s former warring communities greeted the centennial deeply at odds over Princip’s motives and his legacy.
Leaders of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs, who consider the assassin a hero, boycotted the Sarajevo events, angered by what they say is an attempt to link the wars that opened and closed the 20th century, and to pin the blame on them.
They planned to re-enact the murder in the eastern Drina river town of Visegrad, seared into the memory of Muslim Bosniaks for a wave of ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs early in the 1992-95 war.
In Sarajevo, Austrian President Heinz Fischer was guest of honour at the concert in the capital’s restored City Hall, known as Vijecnica, where Ferdinand attended a reception on June 28, 1914. The archduke and his wife left in an open car, but the driver took a wrong turn and Princip shot them from a Browning pistol on the banks of the river.
The Austrians attacked Serbia a month later and the Great Powers, already spoiling for a fight, piled in. The neo-Moorish Vijecnica, which later became the National Library, went up in flames in 1992 under fire from Bosnian Serb forces in the hills, almost 2 million books perishing in the inferno.
The building bears a plaque condemning the “Serb criminals” who fired the shells, a reference Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said prevented him from attending. He was in Visegrad instead.
“I am happy that we can send to Europe a message of peace after the destruction of two decades ago,” Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency told reporters after the concert, which included the music of Haydn, Schubert, Berg and Brahms. Izetbegovic’s Croat counterpart attended, but their Serb colleague did not.
Austria’s Fischer said: “Tonight we want to send out an appeal to Bosnian citizens to put aside their differences and concentrate on a joint goal, to bring the country closer to the EU.”
Leaders of the 28-member European Union marked the centennial on Thursday in Ypres, the Belgian city synonymous with the slaughter of the war, papering over divisions born of economic crisis and growing support for the anti-EU right. French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy chose Sarajevo to premiere his play, “Hotel Europe”, a monologue on crisis in Europe. It ended on Friday with a petition calling for Bosnia’s admission to the EU, a dream held hostage to sectarian rifts.
Europe “is a place where populism and nationalism are on the rise”, said Levy, who lobbied for Western intervention to end the war in Bosnia. Intervention came too late for the 100,000 who died. “The admission of Bosnia to the bloc means fresh blood, fresh air and Europe’s second chance for redemption.”
For visitors to the city, guides offered tours of the key locations on the day Princip killed Ferdinand. Technicians prepared a midnight musical on the bridge near where he fired the fatal shot.
The concert, however, competed with World Cup football and Wimbledon tennis for the attention of Sarajevans. Only a few hundred, many of them tourists, gathered in a park across the river from Vijecnica to watch the concert on a big screen.
A few protesters unfurled banners declaring, “We are under occupation again - by nationalism, capitalism, the EU and international community.” The protest alluded to the political and economic inertia in Bosnia that inspired unprecedented civil unrest in February.
“It’s schizophrenic to mark the start of any war, but here it’s especially rude,” said Aldin Arnautovic, who described himself as a citizen of Sarajevo. “It’s not the people in Bosnia who have problems among themselves, but those in that building,” he said, referring to the political and diplomatic corps assembled in the Vijecnica.
Serbs see Princip as a freedom fighter not just for Orthodox Serbs but for many of Bosnia’s Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats too, his shot bringing down the curtain on centuries of imperial occupation over the Balkans.
That was the official narrative for decades under socialist Yugoslavia. But the collapse of their joint state shattered perceptions of Princip, whom many Bosniaks and Croats regard as a Serb nationalist with the same territorial ambitions as those behind much of the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s.
Bosnia was divided into two autonomous regions after the war, in a highly decentralised system of ethnic quotas that has stifled development and, critics say, only cemented divisions.
“Gavrilo Princip’s shot was not a shot against the heir of the Austro-Hungarian throne, but a shot for freedom, emancipation and liberation,” Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who frequently threatens Serb secession, said in Visegrad.
Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic and Fedja Grulovic in Sarajevo, Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Stephen Powell