Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Street Name Change Splits Bosnian Capital
When Josip Tito’s partisans freed Sarajevo from the Nazis and their Ustasha allies in April 1945, residents marked the end of four years of terror with celebrations in the main street.
Not long afterwards, Aleksandar Street was renamed in honour of Tito, who went on to become president of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. Signs bearing his name still hang the length and breadth of Bosnia’s main thoroughfare.
But not for much longer, if supporters of Bosnia’s late president Alija Izetbegovic get their way.
Izetbegovic became Bosnia’s first president as Yugoslavia broke up, and remained head of state throughout a war which saw Sarajevo bombarded by besieging Serb forces.
A campaign has been launched to have Tito Street renamed after the former president, who died in October last year.
Although the city is gripped by political and economic crisis, and residents are traumatised by mafia showdowns, brutal murders and rapes, and corruption, the change of name for the main street has become a hot – and politically-loaded – topic.
Sukrija, a resident of Tito Street for 40 years, says scrapping the name would be justified – but not for the reasons that most supporters of the campaign would endorse.
“When Tito was in power the people in this street were Muslims, Catholics, Jews, atheists, Jehovah’s Witnesses – all mixed up, in line with Tito’s politics,” he recalled. “But when Izetbegovic came, grenades landed, people moved away and my new neighbours are all Muslims from the provinces.”
“It has become a street like any other in the provinces. Just as Tito was a world statesman, under Alija we fell behind. The name of the street should reflect this.”
The campaign for Izetbegovic Street started three months ago when Sulejman Tihic, leader of the Bosnian Muslim-led Party of Democratic Action, SDA, and a member of the Bosnian state’s presidency, demanded that something be done to commemorate the recently-deceased leader.
On February 5, the commission responsible for marking historical events and figures in Sarajevo canton duly voted to propose renaming Tito Street as Alija Izetbegovic Street at the next cantonal assembly.
The vote was not surprising, as five of the seven members of the commission belong either to Izetbegovic’s old party or to a closely allied group, with only two from the opposition Social Democrats.
The decision seems likely to go through at the next session of the canton assembly, scheduled symbolically for March 1, Bosnia’s independence day
But the battle is not over yet, and Bosnia’s complex constitutional arrangements, in which power is split between the Federation and Republika Srpska, could yet sink the proposal.
A few days ago, Sahbaz Dzihanovic, deputy president of the Federation, said a decision to rename the capital’s main street could only be passed by the state parliament, in which both entities are represented. Under the constitution, Sarajevo is deemed to be the capital of the whole of Bosnia, not just the Federation, he added.
As it had never previously occurred to anyone to check whether the constitution defines which placenames can and cannot be changed, Dzihanovic’s announcement seemed likely to send experts rushing to check the exact legal wording.
Another problem is that the momentum behind the campaign to for Izetbegovic Street has come solely from the SDA, which is almost totally Bosnian Muslim in composition.
Members of other groups feel far from happy about the idea.
“Changing the name of Tito Street would mean the systematic and planned erasure of our history,” complained Zenja Ljubuskic, a Muslim member of the commission for marking historical dates in Sarajevo canton, and a Social Democrat.
“If this were to happen, Sarajevo would lose many of the attributes of a capital city.”
There are streets and squares named after Tito far beyond his own country – from France, Spain and Italy to India, Egypt and Libya.
Within the states that emerged from socialist Yugoslavia, Croatia – where he was born - still remembers him with Marshal Tito Square in the capital Zagreb. Although Croatia’s post-independence president Franjo Tudjman became a passionate anti-communist and spurned Tito’s political legacy, he never deprived him of his square.
Serbia has been less generous. Twenty-four years after his death, both the street and the square named after him in Belgrade have changed the names – Marshal Tito Street becoming King Milan Street.
If Tito Street has survived until now in Sarajevo, it is, ironically, thanks to President Izetbegovic, who refused to contemplate altering it.
“I wouldn’t allow the name of Tito’s street to be changed because I do not think history starts with us”, Izetbegovic once said in an interview.
A few days ago Izetbegovic’s son Bakir suggested that a new title might now be appropriate. “My father was right not to allow a name change for Tito Street,” he said, “but people are also right [now] to ask for this change.”
The latest opinion polls show that the people of Sarajevo remain undecided over the future of their largest and most popular avenue.
As Bosnians await the decision, the youth wing of the Social Democrats has added some humour to the debate.
The group, most of whose members were not born when Tito was alive, has printed pocket diaries containing a message from beyond the grave from the late Yugoslav leader - “This must be a lucky city if I am its biggest problem.”
Dino Bajramovic is a journalist in Sarajevo.
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