Across the western Balkans, gleaming new airport terminals are being built—and named in ways that upset the neighbours. A futuristic new facility opened in March in Zagreb, the Croatian capital. It has been renamed Franjo Tudjman airport, after the father of Croatia’s independence movement. He fought a vicious war with Croatia’s Serbs who, backed by Serbia, set up a short-lived breakaway Serbian republic on a third of Croatia’s territory. In 1995 most of the Serbs in Croatia were sent packing.
Among those victims of ethnic cleansing were relatives of the world’s most famous Serb, Nikola Tesla, an inventor. Tesla was born a Serb in 1856 in what is now Croatia, but emigrated to America; both Serbs and Croats claim him. Since 2006, Belgrade airport has annoyingly (to some Croats) borne his name.
There is more. Eighteen years after the end of the Kosovo war you still cannot fly from Nikola Tesla to Adem Jashari, in whose honour Pristina airport has been named since 2010. Jashari was one of the founders of the Kosovo Liberation Army who died along with dozens of his extended family after a Serbian siege of his compound in 1998. Today he is a Kosovo Albanian hero—and to Serbs, a devil.
The Greeks started the airport name game in 1992, by renaming Thessalonika’s airport as Macedonia. Greece and Macedonia have been locked in a row since Macedonian independence in 1991; Greece says that Macedonia’s name implies a territorial claim on that part of historic Macedonia which lies in Greece. The Macedonians retaliated by changing Skopje airport’s name to Alexander the Great in 2007, after the ancient Greek conqueror claimed by both countries. However, Macedonia’s new government wants better relations with Greece, so a new name change is now possible.
Some names have not changed. In Bosnia, Sarajevo airport remains plain old Sarajevo. An attempt in 2005 to rename it for Alija Izetbegovic, the wartime leader of Bosnia’s Muslims, was vetoed by the then international proconsul, Paddy Ashdown. Podgorica also remains Podgorica—except on your luggage tag. There, it remains TGD, a reminder that the Montenegrin capital was once named Titograd for Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav leader who died in 1980.