Bosnia’s oldest and most prestigious cultural institutions have begun closing their doors one after another, thanks to long-standing disputes among politicians from its three ethnic groups and dwindling state funding.
In 2011, the seven institutions — among them the 125-year-old National Museum whose collection includes the famed 600-year-old Jewish manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah — received virtually no funding from authorities in the Balkan nation and can no longer finance their work or even cover their utility bills.
The National Library is due to close its doors Friday, just days after the Historical Museum closed. The National Gallery shut down last summer, while the National Museum expects to close piece by piece in coming weeks after its power supply is cut off due to unpaid bills.
"By no will of our own, we have found ourselves in the middle of a political battle and have become a political problem," National Museum director Adnan Busuladzic told The Associated Press.
A main reason for the closings is the failure by political leaders of the country’s Serb, Croat and Bosniak peoples to agree on what to do with Bosnia’s shared historical and cultural heritage, and whether to even preserve it.
Founded by Bosnian state authorities at different stages of the country’s turbulent history, the top seven cultural institutions were left without a guardian at the end of Bosnia’s 1992-95 inter-ethnic war.
Under the Dayton peace agreement that ended the conflict, Bosnia was split along ethnic lines into two semi-autonomous parts linked by a weak central government.
The central government has no ministry of culture and no obligation to provide permanent funding for the institutions that are the custodians of the country’s national heritage, including precious medieval manuscripts, religious relicts, and natural history artifacts.
Bosnian Serbs, in particular, oppose giving the central government control over the cultural sites, with their leaders often insisting that Bosnia is an artificial state and that each of the country’s ethnic groups has its own heritage.
Bosniaks, meanwhile, insist that safeguarding the shared history of the Bosnian people is one way to keep the country unified instead of permanently splitting it the way many Bosnian Serbs would want.
The culture minister of the country’s Bosniak-Croat part, Salmir Kaplan, pledged late Thursday that his government will provide funding to cover the unpaid utility bills of the National Museum. But Kaplan admitted that was just a temporary solution.
So far, the national institutions have been financed through often insufficient ad-hoc grants from different layers of government. For the past decade, most of the scarce funding that had allowed them to stay open while cutting down on staff and operational costs came from the reserves of the central budget.
But following the October 2010 general elections, the six winning parties took nearly 15 months to reach an agreement on formation of the new central government, leaving power in the hands of an outgoing cabinet that failed to pass a budget.
Funding for the work of central institutions was secured through temporary financing decisions and no reserve funds had been provided, leaving the national cultural institutions with nothing.
"We accumulated huge debt for our heating bill and now it will be switched off, and then the water in our pipes will freeze and our alarms will shut down, our phone lines and our internet connection will be cut off," Busuladzic said, before Kaplan’s pledge.
"The most we can hope for is that the police will guard the museum from potential thieves," he added.
Busuladzic insists that the closing of the museum will not be a "grand gesture" by its employees, but a "tragic outcome of years of neglect of its immense treasure".
Among other things, the National Museum’s collection includes the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated manuscript brought to Bosnia by a Jewish family expelled from Spain during the Inquisition and saved from Hitler’s forces during World War II by the museum’s then director, a Catholic Croat, and a Muslim Bosniak family.
Earlier this week, the heating in Bosnia’s Historical Museum was cut off and its doors closed to the public. Despite not having received salaries for the past six months, its employees still come to work to try to shield its 400,000 historical artifacts from the elements.
Employees are preparing to close the National Library on Friday with heavy hearts.
"We are in an extremely difficult situation. There is no way out, we have no hope," said the deputy director of the National Library, Bedita Islamovic.
Islamovic lamented that Bosnia had become "the world’s only country which does not care for its national treasures."