Austria to Bosnia Diplomatic Connection

By, Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey

Photo Credit: Embassy of Austria Twitter Feed

It was not the “Muslim majority” countries or the super-power that projected freedom as its international commitment. Bosnia & Herzegovina’s (BiH) first true diplomatic friend was Austria and this robust support was much due to a tireless friend Alois Mock, who passed, (June 1, 2017), after a very lengthy battle with Parkinson’s that also shortened his political career. The links between Austria and BiH go back to over a century earlier. The past connection between Austria and BiH was perhaps most personified in the 1990’s by Pavo Urban, a longtime Vienna citizen and intellectual who was born on July 5, 1911 in the then recently Austro-Hungarian annexed Sarajevo. However, during the last two decades of the 20th Century, Austria and BiH shared more of a vision of the future, a like minded commitment to erasing the old divides of the Cold War and a Europe that was inclusive and thus more prosperous, peaceful and giving succour to the then developing identity of European Citizen and Global Citizen.

First Cut in Iron Curtain:

The first cut in the Iron Curtain did not come from a NATO army or an EU member state but along the Austria-Hungary border led by then Alois Mock and his Hungarian counterpart. (See above photo). Before Alois Mock, some sought to project Austria as “neutral” in standing between the Soviet East and the then Euro-Atlantic West. Under his leadership Austria began a prompt integration into the Euro-Atlantic family. As critically, it sought inclusion rather than exclusion of parts of Europe previously cut off by the false divides erected. In this context the former Yugoslavia, or its sovereign republics upon dissolution, would have moved toward EU integration.

By early 1992, Bosnia & Herzegovina had already come under assault. Serbia’s strongman Slobodan Milosevic exploited the image of also a “neutral” Yugoslavia, (that under Tito had helped establish the “Non-Aligned Movement”), to obfuscate his wars to establish a “Greater Serbia” as means to perpetuate his hold on absolute power. (In many ways Milosevic was the first Putin seeking to reconstitute old empires lost – (Read: “Zbig Brzezinski, the Battle on Post-Communism Fascism“)  BiH’s first step as a independent country post Yugoslavia dissolution was to join the family of nations at the UN. This is where Alois Mock stepped in with assistance but also a personal commitment that revealed a fresh vision of Europe beyond the then divides.

Pavo Urban, a link to BiH’s Austro-Hungarian Past:

History was a link between BiH and Austria. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had occupied BiH as the Ottoman Empire withdrew. It was largely not a pleasant welcome from most of the BiH population, including armed resistance with most ethnic/religious groups (then they were called “Bosnian Orthodox,” Bosnian Catholic” and “Bosnian” Muslim) opposing the new occupation for a variety of motives. Over time Austro-Hungary sought to integrate and accommodate, and in 1908 BiH was formally annexed as part of the Empire.  Pavo Urban was born into this more inclusive Austria-Hungary, and where his father served as an officer in the army of this Empire.  As WW I erupted, many BiH citizens were drafted into this war, willingly or not; however they are remembered as serving with courage and distinction on numerous front lines, from Russia to battles closer to the homeland. With this legacy, Pavo Urban helped establish a BiH-Austria friendship society in the 1960’s. He also then began a friendship with another Vienna based Nazi Hunter whose name would become synonymous with tracking down war criminals, Simon Wiesenthal.

When I first met Pavo Urban after the war in BiH was already in full-consuming rage, he immediately struck me as an infectious personality who was a student of many disciplines while a teacher of others. In my extended visit with him in Vienna, he offered some natural remedies for my severe allergies. More critically, along with then BiH’s Ambassador to Austria Huso Zivalj, he shared his wide contacts including with civil society and government. The relationship with Wiesenthal’s “Jewish Documentation Center” was already engaged in bringing light and justice to the grave violations of international humanitarian law, “war crimes”, victimizing BiH citizens with seeming impunity. The relationship with Simon Wiesenthal has continued with efforts by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and New York to engage just as means of reconciliation.

Pavo Urban though may be best defined as to motive and person by his last will and testament. Pavo Urban was BiH’s first honorary Ambassador to Austria. He spent much of his last years of a very long and active life in Sarajevo. Upon his death, he helped fund scholarships for students of all ethnic backgrounds via a Foundation established by General Jovan Divjak, a Bosnian Serb-Orthodox commander of BiH’s Government defense forces who was instrumental with courage and leadership, in repulsing the assault upon Sarajevo by Milosevic’s and General Ratko Mladic’s regulars and ultra-nationalist Serb paramilitary.

Austria & Christian Democrat, not “Islamist,” Stood first by BiH’s Side at UN:

As much as Pavo Urban was a link to historical bonds to Austria and reminder of our commitment to diversity,  Alois Mock was urging a forward looking, inclusive Europe. In 1992, he facilitated BiH efforts to join the UN by both diplomatic and practical measures. Austria was fortuitously an elected member of the UN Security Council and the most clear voice projecting BiH’s aspirations and views. Austria’s teams of finely tuned and committed diplomats at the UN exemplified a vision of the globe and Europe that was not stymied by history and their capabilities were tested that would also serve Austria’s own best interests in future diplomatic endeavours. Over the next two decades, the junior Austrian diplomats with whom I worked closely together would reach defining roles in multilateral institutions as well as in their own nation’s Ministry. The assistance though reached into the deeper practical as Dr. Haris Silajdzic, (then Foreign Minister), Dr. Nedzib Sacirbey, (BiH’s informal rep to Washington before an Embassy was established), and I (designated to gain BiH Admission to the UN), relied upon Austria’s credentials to gain entry to UN HQ, (including at critical and urgent moment of re-submitting BiH’s application for Admission after informed of covert efforts to subvert President Alija Izetbegovic’s initial application sent by fax from an already besieged Sarajevo). While we already employed my personal office across town New York as BiH’s first Mission to the UN, we were welcomed and did employ Austria’s offices that were conveniently immediately adjacent to UN HQ.

During my last meeting with Foreign Minister Mock, his Parkinson’s affliction was starting to noticeably affect his body, something that also become a personal obstruction for another hero, Muhammad Ali. ( Read:  “Muhammad Ali’s Humility, My Greatest Lesson“)  In 1995 Mock would retire as Foreign Minister but would continue public service and advocacy including via the Central European Initiative and the Global Panel Foundation. Perhaps in significant part due to Mock’s example, refugees from BiH were largely welcomed to Austria. Over the years I have met a few of them, young men and women who are contributing as lawyers, doctors, plumbers, laborers and/or artists to Austria and BiH and proud of shared identity/history. More recently, Austria has faced its own ideological challenges with politicians at times appealing to exclusion and stereotypes while ignoring the lessons of Austria’s own mixed legacy before, after and during the two great wars and Holocaust.

What may surprise some is that Alois Mock was not a member of a left leaning party but the center right “People’s” or “Christian Democratic” alliances. Immediately following the conflict in BiH, the Muslim oriented party in BiH (“SDA” or Party for Democratic Action) was invited to move toward joining it’s “Christian-Democratic” like minded political parties. This fell through in large part due to missed opportunities. When Mock viewed BiH as an exception of diversity to monolith states in Europe and to him Bosniaks, (Bosnian Muslims), were not the outsider. It is a lesson that is never more relevant than in today’s Euro-Atlantic family where much political currency is spent and earned by labeling “the other” while ignoring the opportunities of inclusion, diversity as well as shared histories. Assimilation and accommodation are responsibilities upon all, but what has been lost that if the opportunities of diversity are not embraced, then we face not only stagnation as societies but repeating the mistakes. History is not just traditions but also about lessons.


About the Author

Muhamed Sacirbey
Muhamed Sacirbey
Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey currently lectures on Digital-Diplomacy. "Mo" has benefited from a diverse career in investment banking & diplomacy, but his passion has been the new avenues of communication. He was Bosnia & Herzegovina's first Ambassador to the United Nations, Agent to the International Court of Justice, Foreign Minister & Signatory of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. He also played American football opting for a scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans after being admitted to Harvard, oh well!!
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