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Turbulence in Balkans Over Renaming of Dubrovnik Airport

The renaming of Dubrovnik’s airport has ignited a new ethnic row between Croatians and Serbs, this time over the lineage of one of the ancient port city’s most illustrious sons.

After a rebrand this month, flights to the Adriatic walled city now land at Ruđer Bošković airport, named in tribute to an 18th-century astronomer, mathematician and polymath.

Also known as Ruggiero Giuseppe Boscovich to the Italians, or by the English transposition of his name, Roger Joseph Boscovich, he outlined a single law governing natural forces, a precursor to atomic theory, and proved the absence of an atmosphere on the moon.

Dubrovnik was known as Ragusa when Bošković was born in the self-governing republic in 1711. His mother was Italian and he left for Rome at the age of 14 to pursue his education and then his career.

But it is the identity and provenance of his father that is now in question, in a row that proves once again that attributing places to people is a thorny business in the Balkans, where identity can be both fluid and highly emotive. In general, religious choices and affiliations made centuries ago have since hardened into ethnic identity: Catholics into Croats, Orthodox Christians into Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims into Bosniaks.

Nikola Bošković was a Ragusan trader from the village of Orahov Do, in the mountains that loom over Dubrovnik. That village now lies in the Bosniak (Muslim) and Croat half of Bosnia known as the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. That entity’s separatist leaders want to build their own airport at Trebinje, not far from Orahov Do, and want to name it after Ruđer Bošković too. Their argument is that Nikola Bošković and his clan were Serbs before they converted to Catholicism.

Serbian scholars argue that Nikola’s conversion was purely transactional and done so that he could marry into a Catholic family in Ragusa or to get on in his career, and therefore did not change the family’s essential Serb identity.

The former Serbian president Boris Tadić described Bošković as a “Serb Catholic”.

Danilo Kovač, a historian at Sapienza University of Rome, said: “When considering the question of Bošković’s ethnic origin, it is crucial to acknowledge that the concept of national identities held different meanings during the time of his ancestors.”

Referring to works by Serbian and Montenegrin scholars arguing that the family was essentially Serb, he added: “Historical records unquestionably confirm that Nikola visited and described Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries in Kosovo.”

Ivan Maslać, the commercial director of Dubrovnik airport, was dismissive of such claims. “The naming of the airport is our business and we will not, of course, ask anyone about it,” he said, according to the Slobodna Bosna newspaper. “Of course Ruđer Bošković is not a Serb.”

Domagoj Vidović, a linguist at the Institute of Croatian Language and Linguistics who did a study of Orahov Do, said: “Ruđer Bošković’s uncle was a Catholic priest, Don Ilija Bošković. Until the beginning of the 20th century, no Orthodox Christians lived in Orahov Do. The Catholic origin of Bošković go back more than 400 years. There is evidence for this in diocesan reports, registers and censuses.”

The tussle over celebrated past residents is nothing new. In 2006, Serbia named Belgrade’s airport after Nikola Tesla, the legendary inventor and grandfather of electric engineering. Tesla was an ethnic Serb born in the village of Smiljan, which was then, in the middle of the 19th century, on the military frontier of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and what is now Croatia.

Although he hardly set foot in present-day Serbia, Belgrade claims Tesla as its own. His ashes are in a Belgrade museum, and the Serbian Orthodox church has been campaigning to have them moved to a cathedral, despite his detached view of religion. Serbia complained bitterly when Croatia put the inventor’s face on its 50, 20 and 10 cent coins when it joined the eurozone at the beginning of the year.

The National Bank of Serbia told Agence France-Presse that by doing so, Zagreb was “usurping the cultural and scientific heritage of the Serbian people”.

Tesla, who became an American citizen, would probably have been appalled at the arguments. “I am equally proud of my Serb origin and my Croat homeland. Long live all Yugoslavs,” he once said.

In Bosnia, the question of the Trebinje has another dimension, an effort by Bosnian Serb nationalists and their separatist leader, Milorad Dodik, to reinforce the autonomy of Republika Srpska. The project has so far been blocked by Croat and Bosniak members of the shared Bosnian presidency.

 This article was amended on 17 November 2023. An earlier version said the village of Orahov Do was in Republika Srpska when it is in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Source : The Guardian