Protest and boycotts as Austrian author accused of supporting Milosevic to receive Nobel prize

Protesters from the Balkans and worldwide are expected to descend on Stockholm today as the Nobel Prize for Literature is handed to an Austrian author accused of supporting the genocidal Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. 

The awarding of this year’s top literature accolade to Peter Handke has prompted an uproar in the region where the wars of the 1990s still cause discord.

The ambassadors of Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey have vowed to boycott the ceremony, and a 58,000 strong petition has called for the award to be revoked. 

Mr Handke, now 77, was in his prime as an author when war broke out between the constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia.

He claimed the coverage of the war unfairly demonised Serbs as a people over Croats, Bosniaks and Albanians. 

Since then, Mr Handke has continued to make statements presenting events from the point of view of Serbian nationalist politicians. In 2006, Mr Handke spoke at the funeral of Milosevic, who died while on trial in the Hague over war crimes.

Emir Suljagic leads the Srebrenica Memorial Center, devoted to the memory of the over 8,000 men and boys killed by Bosnian Serb forces in a single day in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

He is a survivor of the genocide himself, and flew to Stockholm to join a group that will protest at Tuesday’s ceremony. “I am in Stockholm to protest the award being given to a man who negates my suffering and the suffering of so many others.”

Mr Handke has declined to address the controversy, telling a press conference on Friday that he would not answer " empty and ignorant questions".

The downplaying of war crimes is still an issue among the states that emerged from the Yugoslav conflict, with both political elites and influential voices trying to minimise their country’s role in the war by pointing fingers at the other. 

The majority Muslim Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina are particular targets of this revisionism.

“Awarding this to Peter Handke sends a message that the suffering of Bosniaks or those believed to be Muslims is not something people in Europe today really take seriously,” said Mr Suljagic.

Mr Handke has his supporters. For residents of the sleepy village of Velika Hoca in Kosovo, the former Serbian province where ethnic tensions still dominate interactions between the ethnic Serb minority and the ethnic Albanian majority, Mr Handke is seen as a hero.

“He was one of the few voices who said something in defense of the Serbs in the West,” says Ljubisa Djuricic, a winemaker in this secluded village known for its wine production and its medieval Serbian Orthodox churches. The Nobel laureate donated about 100,000 euros to the village and said he wanted to enter monkhood there. “Handke is my personal hero.”

But Blend Berisha, an ethnic Albanian who comes from a village bordering Velica Hoca, says that the announcement of the Nobel prize winner made him remember a time he would rather forget.

“We are trying to get along with our Serbian neighbors despite the painful memories of the past, and this award made us remember why we started fighting in the first place.”

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