Many still believe playwright Handke did not deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature, but plans for a statue of the Austrian have now crossed the line.
Most Bosnian cities have declared Handke a persona non grata over his support for the late Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, who died in prison in the Hague just months before the conclusion of his four year trial for war crimes.
The city of Banja Luka, however, is in the Serb-dominated entity of Srpska, where the Nobel Prize winner is not regarded as controversial.
“For Bosnians, this is an insult,” says Dr Hikmet Karcic, a genocide scholar in Sarajevo.
“Serb nationalists and in this case the Banja Luka authorities will endorse anyone who is a supporter of historical revisionism,” added Karcic, speaking to TRT World.
When the playwright and novelist won the prestigious award in 2019, many of his contemporaries described it as a “troubling choice” given the authors “shocking ethical blindness.”
A lack of moral compass had led Handke to make statements about Bosnian Muslims killing themselves in Sarajevo so as to lay the blame at Serbia’s door. With regards to the Srebrenica genocide, in which Serb forces systematically killed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys, Handke believed both sides were to blame.
In the Serb-dominated region of Srpska, however, a different perspective has evolved, which is out of sync with the widely accepted facts of what unfolded during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995.
“When the Handke affair was occurring, the Banja Luka authorities recommended him to be named honorary citizen. So this is just a natural sequence of events and genocide denial,” says Karcic.
Reactions on social media by Bosnians have made clear that such a statute would be unwelcome.
I have a perfect spot for Peter Handke's bust. Finally, he'll be in the proper company. pic.twitter.com/wgw6wd3tOU— Emir Suljagić (@suljagicemir1) June 24, 2020
There is much discussion swirling around the world about the removal of statues that may have links to racially controversial history, but Srpska appears to be going in the opposite direction.
The Serbian sculptor, Bojan Mikulic, who has been commissioned for the Handke statue, was less circumspect than many of the critics.
“I was extremely glad when the proposal to work with this person arrived. I think it is the first big standing figure of Handke and it will be permanently placed in Banja Luka . Banja Luka will get an important landmark, I am sure time will show that we did a nice job for our city and its history," he said, speaking to a local media outlet.
In 2018, the region of Srpska erected a statue of Vitaly Churkin, the former Russian ambassador to the UN who vetoed a resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre as genocide.
A petition was launched in October last year to lobby the committee that awarded the Nobel Prize to strip Handke of the accolade.
The petition has so far gathered more than 60,000 signatures with the petitioner arguing that
“Peter Handke is an apologist for the “butcher of Balkans” Slobodan Milosevic. A person who defends such a monster does not deserve a simplest literary recognition let alone a Nobel Prize.”
In his book, “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia”, Handke argued that the Western press had unfairly victimised Serbia as the aggressor in the Balkans.
When Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006, Handke attended his funeral and delivered a speech stating that he was close to the late dictator.
He later explained his decision by saying his presence was not aimed at eliciting a show of support, but to speak out against the people that had misrepresented Milosevic’s legacy.
Milosevic was indicted and charged with crimes against humanity, which also included deportation, forcible transfer, murder and persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds. Before his conviction, he died in prison.