bosnia report
New Series No: 23/24/25 June - October 2001
‘Serb’ towns in Bosnia
by Ivan Lovrenovic

‘Serb’ towns in Bosnia  - on ideological toponymy in our recent history


Sejfudin Tokic obviously carried out some serious formal consultations before deciding to direct to the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina his initiative to eliminate the attribute ‘Serb’ from the names of towns in Republika Srpska decorated with this adornment by the wartime government of the SDS and Radovan Karadzic. His proposal did not include all the other changed names, presumably because it was those with ethnic attributes that could be shown with the most convincing arguments to be in violation of the Dayton Peace Agreement and the Constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to be an active impediment to the return of deportees and refugees, and also to constitute a direct manifestation of a policy of apartheid and ethnic discrimination.

That this question has an explicitly political and ideological background was proved by the swift reaction of politicians from Republika Srpska. The watchful guardians of Serbdom and a Serb state in Bosnia-Herzegovina immediately recognised Tokic’s initiative as neither more nor less than a plan for the abolition of Republika Srpska itself. How the Constitutional Court will respond and what it will decide is impossible to predict. But it is clear that this is going to be one of the important tests on the painful and uncertain journey to the re-civilisation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Two-part names

In our toponymy there are not many two-part names made up of an adjective and a noun, and they are usually from recent history. The few exceptions are rather significant.

One is the name of the ancient Bosnian town of Banja Luka. This name bears within it a thousand years of social, historical and cultural memory and linguistic melody. The etymology of this name, hence also its meaning, are most clearly revealed by the way it has been pronounced and inflected by the original inhabitants of Banja Luka and Bosnia. Rarely would you hear them say: Banja-luka, Banjaluke, or Banja Luke, Banja Luci, but rather: Bânja Luka, Bânje Luke, Bânjoj Luci, Bânjom Lukom... This is because the etymology of this name has nothing to do with banja [spa] or luka [harbour], which is what most of its present-day inhabitants - who have no intimate relationship with either the tradition of the town or the melody of its language - must think, to judge by their pronunciation. The first word of the name is an old (mediaeval) form of possessive adjective derived from the noun ban [governor], while the second word is the common archaic luka, of which there are thousands in Bosnia, meaning cultivable land, a meadow near water ( in this case, of course, near the Vrbas). Hence: banova luka, the Ban’s meadow. Thus does history forget facts (which Ban?, how did he get the meadow?, when did it happen? - we know nothing of this); and thus can language preserve an imprint of social reality, and above all the music of accent, quantity and intonation.

From an earlier history, another kind of two-part name is familiar. This is the little list of vakufs: Varcar, Donji and Gornji, Skucani, Kulen, Skender. In the name of the first of these, the cultural and historical memory of two or three thousand years is compressed in a fascinating manner. It embraces layers of civilizational ‘records’ of the pre-Roman and pre-Slav metallurgists of the ancient ‘Illyrian’, then mediaeval Slav settlement of Varcarevo, via the establishment of a new settlement (Krzlaragin vakuf) after the Ottoman conquest in the sixteenth century, to the gradual fusion of names and settlements into one: Varcar Vakuf, which has lasted for a few centuries.

New two-part names of settlements and towns began to multiply in Bosnia when, along with Austro-Hungary, a ‘civilization of administration’ arrived. Huge campaigns of cadastral surveying and the establishment of tax and property registries and censuses, an attempted cartographic survey of the entire country, a passionate interest in geological, archaeological, geographical and ethnographic research - all this created a need for the greatest possible toponymic precision, to avoid confusion and duplication. It was then that the adjective Bosnian was administratively prefixed to the names of that series of towns on the rivers Una and Sava, so that they could be distinguished from their twin settlements on the other bank: Bosanska Kostajnica, Bosanski Novi, Bosanska Dubica, Bosanski Kobas, Bosanski Brod, Bosanska Gradiska, Bosanska Krupa, Bosanski Samac...

Advent of ideology

The new fashion for ideological toponymy arrived with the first Yugoslavia. One innocent victim of that fashion, for instance, was Varcar Vakuf. In 1924 they officially renamed it Mrkonjic-Grad, in order to glorify the ‘old king’ Petar Karadjordjevic and commemorate his ‘Chetnik exploits’ under the hajduk [bandit] pseudonym Petar Mrkonjic, during the uprising of 1875-78, somewhere on the border between Bosnia and Lika, in Crni Potoci. The ‘old king’ had never seen or been anywhere near Varcar, nor had his Chetnik exploits lasted very long or been particularly glorious. Milan Karanovic gave an apologetic account of them in his pamphlet The Chetnik Exploits of Duke Petar Mrkonjic (Petar N. Gakovic Press, Sarajevo 1921), while the real scale of the uprising in the Bosnian krajina was described in picaresquely glowing images by ‘Duke’ Pero Kreco, a merchant from Varcar. I received a typed version of his autobiography as a gift from Ivo Andric, in an envelope addressed in his own hand in the late seventies; the intermediary was Branko Copic, who was unrivalled in his knowledge of the merry history of hajduk life in the microcosm of Bosnia and Lika. Is there any need even to mention the fact that the yellow envelope had a very special place amongst my other papers. Who knows what happened to my ‘Kreco’, like all my other papers, after the occupation of Grbavica in 1992? Perhaps that esteemed man of letters Nedjo Sipovac, who headed something called the National Library there, said to be ‘concerned with rescuing’ books, manuscripts, documents...

A year after Varcar, the name of another ancient Bosnian settlement was ideologically adapted. In the name of eternal ‘three names - one nation’ love and unity, King Aleksandar named his son after the legendary Croatian king Tomislav; and in 1925, under the exalted patronage of the Court, the (approximate) thousandth anniversary was celebrated of the Svehrvatski Sabor [ All Croatian Parliament] held on Duvanjsko Polje in 925 AD (as was ‘confirmed incontrovertibly by rigorous methods of critical historiography’ in the renowned literary text by Father Dukljanin!). On this occasion the name Tomislavgrad (but called after whom - King Tomislav or the young Karadjordjevic prince?) replaced the ancient Delmato-Roman-Bosnian-Croat name Duvno. The new, present-day Tomislavgradjani (is that what the Duvnjaci now call themselves?), who for the second time have given the town back its ‘old’ name, each year when they celebrate Tomislav’s Sabor should give at least a bit of credit to their first godfather, Aleksandar Karadjordjevic.

We had some experience with the same kind of ideological nomenclature in the second Yugoslavia too, particularly in its first period. Then we saw places called Kardeljevo, Pucarevo or Kidricevo springing up on all sides, while towns bearing Tito’s name are too numerous to be listed. Yet the SDS’s ‘Serbianization’ of towns is something totally new, differing from all previous ideological changes. After dreadful and bloody events, it arrives to confirm on the symbolic-political plane what in those events was done with physical force and crime. So the adjective ‘Serb’ in the names of certain settlements today does not just have the exclusivistic national significance that its creators intended, but emits an even more powerful sense of foreboding and sinister shudder at the memory of those events. The pre-war, non-Serb inhabitants of those towns are particularly well aware of this, since it is a psychological tool - and one of the most powerful - invisibly preventing their return.

But is it not possible to speak also of a psychological and political reverse side of this? By calling towns (and a ‘state’) conspicuously and emphatically ‘Serb’, are the advocates of such names not themselves revealing a certain - socio-psychologically rather dangerous - symptom of foreignness, or rootlessness? I cannot recall that the name of any French, German, Russian or Italian town is prefixed by a possessive adjective derived from the name of that country or people! Something instinctively and naturally felt to be one’s own does not need to be so declaratively named as such.

Translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 20 July 2001

Ivan Lovrenovic’s Bosnia - a cultural history will be published 6 December 2001  - in hardback, with 8 full-colour plates, 39 black-and-white in-text illustrations, 8 maps, bibliography, glossary and index - by Saqi Books, in association with The Bosnian Institute(and by New York University Press in the United States). It is available now for £19.95 (postage free) from The Bosnian Institute, 15/16 St Mark’s Road, London W11 1RQ.

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