SARAJEVO (Reuters) - It has survived the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire, two world wars and the implosion of Yugoslavia.
But now Bosnia’s 124-year-old National Museum faces closure in a row between the Balkan country’s feuding Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders over who should pay its bills.
The dispute centres on whether and how to preserve their shared heritage, but goes to the heart of an ideological battle between the once-warring communities over the future of their joint state.
While the politicians argue, funding for seven of Bosnia’s most significant cultural institutions has dried up, forcing the closure of the National Gallery last year and the Historical Museum last week.
The National Library is next in line, and the National Museum - home to the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah - could see its doors close within days or weeks as unpaid electricity bills and wages mount up.
“We are merely a reflection of the chronic disease that has gripped this country since Dayton,” said Adnan Busuladzic, general manager of the imposing museum in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.
Dayton, Ohio, was where the warring sides agreed to end the conflict that broke out with the collapse of federal Yugoslavia, killing 100,000 people.
The U.S.-brokered peace deal stopped the fighting, but to do so created a system so unwieldy and decentralised that critics say Bosnia barely functions as a unified state.
The Bosnian Serbs are fiercely protective of their autonomy under the deal that divided Bosnia into a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb Republic, and have frequently threatened to secede.
Bosnia’s state cultural institutions such as the National Museum serve as guardians of the region’s multi-ethnic heritage, and testify to a past of greater tolerance and pluralism than the region has witnessed in its more recent history.
But many Bosnian Serbs consider Bosnia an artificial creation, and such institutions an anomaly, a hangover of Yugoslavia that they refuse to fund.
Almost 17 years after Dayton, the sides have yet to agree on legislation to regulate the status of the museum, library and other national cultural institutions, or even to establish a state-level Ministry of Culture to run them.
To survive, they have applied each year for a joint grant of 3 million Bosnian marka from the state Civil Affairs Ministry, which is then shared among some 20 museums, galleries and other institutions.
The National Museum alone needs up to 1.4 million marka per year to function.
Last year, the temporary funding ground to a halt as Serb, Croat and Muslim political leaders argued over how to form a central government and adopt a state budget after an election in October 2010.
They broke the deadlock in late December, but the budget deal looks unlikely to save the National Museum or other cultural landmarks without a political agreement to provide the long-term funding they need.
Bosnian Muslim and Croat officials say they have no legal basis to fund them alone.
“We are in a very difficult position and we had no other option but to close the doors as we have not received our salaries since last July,” said Muhiba Kaljanac, general director of Bosnia’s Historical Museum.
Founded in 1945 when Bosnia was part of socialist Yugoslavia, the Historical Museum is home to some 400,000 artefacts.
“The political row has been dragging on for too long and the negligence by all levels of authority will turn us into a country without a history,” Kaljanac said.
The National Museum, which opened in 1888 under the Austro-Hungarian empire, received an emergency injection of 50,000 marka on Friday from the education and culture ministries of the Muslim-Croat Federation to keep its doors open a few more days.
A focal point for students from across Bosnia, the museum hosts rich anthropological and ethnological collections.
One of its most valuable artefacts is the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th century Jewish manuscript illuminated in copper and gold and brought to Sarajevo by Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition in the 16th century. It was hidden from the Nazis during World War Two.
Busuladzic, the general manager, said Friday’s cash injection was only “patching up” the problem and not a long-term solution.
“Unless this issue is resolved in a legal sense, our shared historical and cultural heritage is set to collapse,” he said.
Last week, visitors to the museum said they feared it might be the last time they enter its doors.
“I spent a day with my niece in the museum,” said Sarajevo resident Sadik Dizdarevic, “to give her a chance to peek at its treasures before it closes and the politicians make us forget who we are.”
Editing by Matt Robinson and Paul Casciato