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Feature 07 Sep 17

Bosnia Yearns for Return of Its ‘Birth Certificate’

Historians and officials in Bosnia are battling to recover the 12th-century Charter of Ban Kulin – the ‘birth certificate of the Bosnian state’ – the oldest copy of which is in Russia.

Emza Fazlic
BIRN
Sarajevo
A copy of the Charter of Ban Kulin. Photo: Anadolu Agency.

Bosnia is continuing a quiet diplomatic battle to recover the Charter of Ban Kulin, the oldest surviving diplomatic document of the medieval Bosnian state – whose historic value to Bosnia is seen as priceless.

The oldest copy of the document is located in the Museum of Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.

The Bosnian state, historians and other experts have been trying to get it returned for years and, after several unsuccessful attempts – the last one of which was in 2015 – are awaiting the right moment to restart negotiations.

Bosnia’s Ministry of Civil Affairs told BIRN that it had tried once more to contact Russia over it, after the Council of Ministers – the government of Bosnia – urged the ministry to initiate fresh activities with the Russian side. 

In response, the ministry was told that any resolution of the issue regarding the charter was in the hands of the Russian Federal Agency of Scientific Organizations.

“In the second half of 2016, we received an answer [from Russia] saying that the Russian Vice-Consul in Dubrovnik, Jeremija Gagic, had purchased the charter from a tobacco trader in 1832,” it explained.

“The Russian Federal Agency of Scientific Organizations considers the charter was purchased legally, has been in the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences for more than 170 years, has been included in the list of the basic collection of the Scientific Research Department of the Manuscript Library and thus is in in the ownership of the Russian Federation,“ the ministry told BIRN.

The ministry then said it had contacted the Russian Agency of Scientific Organizations with a request to consider loaning the charter temporarily to Bosnia and Herzegovina.  

“We have not yet received an answer to this request,” the ministry said.

A few days ago, the charter celebrated the 828th anniversary of its creation.

Issued on August 29, 1189, it is the first known document issued by a ruler of the Bosnian kingdom to the people of another state.

Bosnian historian Enver Imamovic calls it the single most important cultural monument of Bosnia’s past.

This is because it supplies crucial evidence that the early medieval Bosnian state existed and had a ruler by the 12th century, although there is evidence that a Bosnian state existed much earlier on, from at least the 10th century.

“The charter is the oldest preserved diplomatic document of the medieval Bosnian state, so it is the birth certificate of the Bosnian state,” Imamovic said.

“The original version is in the Bosnian language and script [bosancica]. A second text is written in Latin,” he recalled.

Issued by Bosnia’s ruler, Ban Kulin, it guarantees the merchants of Dubrovnik full security, freedom of movement and trading rights, as well as release from all taxes.

“Dubrovnik was then the most important trading partner of medieval Bosnia,” Imamovic explained.

Unfortunately, for centuries, all the surviving copies have been beyond the country’s actual borders.

Imamovic told BIRN there at least three versions of the charter survive, although the one in Russia appears to be the oldest, and original, copy.

“The other versions represent transcripts of the originals made in Dubrovnik, a few years after the charter arrived there. It is known that all three copies were in Dubrovnik until 1832,” he said.

“The original today is in Russia. It was taken there by the former Russian consul in Dubrovnik, Jeremija Gagić. Apparently, while walking through the city, he saw a pile of discarded things on the street, some old records, including the charter,” Imamovic said.

Ban Kulin Charter souvenir. Photo: Anadolu Agency

The historian doubts that Gagic found the charter in 1817, as he claimed to have done, and believes this happened in 1832, probably with the help of a certain Djordje Nikolajevic, who was commissioned that year by the Austrian government to search the archives of Dubrovnik for old manuscripts that were supposed to be transferred to Vienna, including the Charter.

It is believed in Bosnia that the Russian diplomat came to him and offered him a good reward for the document.

“The younger transcripts of the Kulin Charter from Dubrovnik were taken to Vienna in 1833, where they remained until the end of the First World War.

“They were then returned to the country [now Yugoslavia] and handed over to the Serbian Royal Academy in Belgrade. In 1941, [under the German occupation] they were returned to Vienna but, with the rest of the archival material, were returned in 1947 – and since then have lain in the archives of Dubrovnik,” Imamovic recalled.

“Information that the [original] charter was located somewhere in Russia first came to us in 2004. We asked Bosnia’s then ambassador to Russia, Enver Halilović, to see where it was. He struggled away and found the Charter of Ban Kulin in the Museum of Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg,” he said.

Halilovic then apparently went there and asked the Russians to hand back the document.

The ambassador tried even to make a film about the return of the Charter in BiH, and brought a movie director with him. Only then did the Russians actually understand how important the document is for BiH.

However, the Russians refused to return the charter.

“National tensions in our country contributed to this failure, as did the [close] relationship between Russia and the [Serb-majority entity in Bosnia] Republika Srpska, which denies the statehood of BiH and everything that testifies to it,” Imamovic said, referring to the long internal disputes in Bosnia between its component parts.

However, the struggle for the return of the charter has continues. Imamović says the authorities have the utmost awareness into the significance of the charter and are willing to do what it takes to aid its return to Bosnia.

In cooperation with other historians and experts, Imamović tried also to arrange for one of the copies of the charter located in Dubrovnik to be exhibited in Bosnia. However, that attempt failed as well.

"We agreed for the charter to come to BiH for an exhibition but certain people stopped it,” Imamovic said, blaming the failure of that initiative on national tensions with Croatia.

While the battle for the return of the country’s oldest and most important historical document continues, Imamović says it will have to be conducted through quiet diplomatic channels, so as to avoid awakening national tensions.

“We have in our possession some very valuable artifacts for Russia – and we hope eventually to succeed in trading them for the Charter,“ Imamovic said, hopefully.

“We will not give up on the Charter of Ban Kulin and the silent diplomatic battle for it goes on,“ Imamovic concluded.

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