Cinderellas part four: Illegal stamps 3. Cinderellas in the Balkans

The stamps from the Balkans discussed here, many of them illegal, reflect the violent disruptions during the 1990s involving Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks. These  emblems of national aspiration began appearing after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Today, Serbs and Croats enjoy influence within a strangely fractured, multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina. So far, so good: Most everyone is  behaving, and like in Northern Ireland, peace seems to build its own self-reinforcing constituency. Back in 1992-93, however, the Muslim Bosniaks, Croa
ts and Serbs (and later the Kosovars) took up arms. It was awful: Thousands died. The Dayton agreement that ended the bloodshed in 1995 is a high point of the administration of President Bill Clinton, who brought the antagonists to Ohio and kept them there until they had a deal. The attached is a stamp commentary that meanders through this perilous time, profusely illustrated with philatelic artifacts from the harrowing scene. I hope you enjoy it!
Best, FMF
p.s. As you may note, this is only “part 3” of my commentaries on illegal stamps. The 

fullsizeoutput_1a84next two should come together rather quickly, then maybe we can get back to … Bechuanaland Protectorate?

Onward!

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Three postal authorities claim the same bridge! Here are three views of Stari Most (The Old Bridge) in Mostar, a small city in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The scenic bridge dates to the 1500s, and was the work of Mimar Hayruddin, apprentice of renowned Islamic architect Mimar Sinan. A remarkable feat of engineering for its day with its delicate, soaring arch, the old bridge spans the Neretva river in the middle of the multi-ethnic city. Also remarkable is the way it is celebrated on recent stamps from three different postal authorities — one representing Croats (left), another Serbs (right), and a third (center) the federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. How can three separate national entities lay claim to the same bridge? To find out, or at least grope for some answers, read on!

fullsizeoutput_1acdThe envelope postmarked “Mostar 10.2.93” arrived in my mailbox, in response to my international postal coupon, without a legal postage stamp, an illegal stamp or even a Cinderella. Instead, it carried an ink stamp that read: “Postarina Placena / Port Paye” — postage paid.

Inside was a handwritten note — in so- so English, with several cross-outs — fullsizeoutput_1ac3signed “Trajaneski Dragi,” that was as poignant as it was informative. “Dear Fred Fiske,” the note read. “We haven’t eny stamps. If we have it be late. I am sorry.”

I had sent my international postal coupon the previous June (1992), when I embarked on a philatelic adventure. I mailed out letters to 23 newly authorized postal authorities in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. Enclosed in each letter was a postal coupon — I recall it cost 75 cents — which provided for a return letter, using stamps to cover postage from the recipient country. Why did I do this? Because I was interested to see what stamps these new nations and postal officials would use at the dawn of their sovereign journeys. The General Post Office in Mostar was just one of the many GPOs I mailed coupons and envelopes to, from Kiev to Riga to Tashkent. (I expect to report on this in a future blog post, profusely illustrated of course.)

fullsizeoutput_1a9bMostar lies in the southwest of the
confusing nation of
Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I say confusing,
because part of the
1994 accords that
led to peace in the
Balkans was
establishing three
areas of influence in Bosnia-Herzogovina
— Croatian, Serbian
and the rest of the
multi-ethnic state,
including Muslims.
Serbia staked territorial claims with its sprawling “Republika Srpska.” Croatia apparently didn’t set formal borders, but asserted its sphere of influence in
traditionally Croat areas (including Mostar?), and shared authority in the federation. Each of these three groups has issued its own stamps, through private agencies. BH Posta serves the Bosnia-Herzegovina federation; Srpske Poste makes stamps for the Serbs, while Hrvatska Posta Mostar supplies stamps to the Croatian postal authority. (Note the reference back to Mostar — a Croatian lodestar … ) Some would consider such quasi-commercial enterprises suspect, and place an asterisk against their stamps as potentially illegal, or Cinderellas — even though they have been accepted on letters mailed inside Bosnia-Herzegovina and beyond.

Are all three types of stamps valid throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina? I’ll try and find out … Meanwhile, Croat postal officials seek to have it all ways in their publicity: “Bosnia-Herzegovina-Croatian post Mostar’s postage stamps are guardians of spiritual, cultural, historical and natural wealth … not only of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. These small works of art travel throughout the world and carry our messages, beauty and also are a source of knowledge and evidence of history.”

fullsizeoutput_1a85The Serbian postal authority — or rather, its private contractor — launched a campaign to have its Europa 2017 stamp (right) chosen as the most beautiful in Europe. In 2017, the multi-nation Europa issue settled on a theme of castles that are still standing. In its pitch, the Serb promoters sounded a theme of peaceful coexistence you don’t hear often enough these days. “Once seen as symbols of power, defence, war and supremacy over other kingdoms, it is extremely positive to see these monuments survive the sociological and political evolutions to have a much more peaceful and beautiful connotation at present times.” The uplift continued: “Today these castles are preserved as monuments that do not only teach us about our own past history, but they can also demonstrate how we no longer need fortified walls in Europe, in order to live in safety.” Then came the hook: “Poste Srpske through this topic are proud to present the fortress Kastel, and we urge you to vote for it via an online competition organized by the Post Europ, the association that represents European public postal operators …” (The deadline for votes was Sept. 9; 2017; for the contest results, go to http://www.posteurop.org/europa2017)

 

fullsizeoutput_1a86In the interests of intra-national good will and fair play, it behooves me to point out that the other two stamp-producing entities in Bosnia-Herzegovina also put out Europa 1017 castle stamps. I don’t know whether they were entered in the contest for Europe’s most-beautiful stamp, but they are pretty nice, don’t you think? Which one of the three do you prefer?fullsizeoutput_1a87

A few more words about these three issues from the separate and distinct postal authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, all issued as part of the 2017 Europa series. Featuring old castles, they include the Serb stamp already shown (Srpske Poste); at right above, the Croat stamp (HP Mostar); and below it the stamp of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BH Posta). It is tempting to impute some national characteristics to each of these stamps. Look at the Serbian image, all angular and spikey and showy, with titles proclaimed from the ramparts. The Croatian entry is in softer focus, with a rustic feel; the castle ruins are rounded and accessible, against pastel greenery and blue sky. The Muslim federation stamp has more of an Islamic feel, with delicate twin arches in an intricately detailed close-up of an ancient castle’s stone alcove. Each stamp is striking in its way. I like all of them, though I remain intrigued and a bit puzzled how this tripartite stamp-issuing phenomenon has managed to continue through the years …

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s stubborn demonstrations of philatelic tribalism pose challenges: Collecting all three sets of stamps is expensive! Doesn’t the whole thing perpetuate unwelcome chauvinism? Weren’t these supposed to be more assimilated, cosmopolitan times for the Balkans? Then again, one might ask: Is one set more “authentic” than the other? My vote goes to the stamps of the multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina federation, over those of the Croatian and

Serbian pretenders. (By the way, Mostar is located in the heart of the federation — which seems to entitle both Croats and Serbs to claim it as their own as well.)

A final thought on this subject: I must admit I’m a bit charmed by all three ethnic groups celebrating a common heritage in their side-by-side-by-side stamp issues. I kind of love the idea that Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks all publicly revere the fabled Stari Most in Mostar — which may lead to acknowledging a shared heritage after all. If you insist on being tribal, I’d much prefer you demonstrate it proudly, through beautiful stamps, rather than by inciting each other with hateful speech, or hitting each other over the head with cudgels, or machetes.

The history of stamps in Mostar is just as confusing as its present status. I have not delved deeply into that history, though I feel I already know much more on the subject that the average reader would be interested to learn. Through the centuries, Mostar was ruled by the Ottomans, then Austro-Hungarians, then Yugoslavs; there was a spasm of fascism under the Nazis, and after World War II, Tito. During the breakup of the Balkans in 1992-3, Mostar was a flashpoint for conflict. First there was fighting between Croat and Yugoslav forces, then Serb and Bosnia-Herzegovina troops.

By February, 1993, when Trajaneski Dragi in Mostar sent me that poignant response to my international postal coupon, I can readily believe there were no stamps available. Many buildings, including historic landmarks, had been wrecked or damaged in the fighting. Postal service was disrupted. Besides, how to decide which stamps to use?! The Yugoslavs had been routed, and were fading into history in any case; the Croats had driven out the Serbs, and were occupying the west side of Mostar; Bosnia-Herzegovina forces were concentrated in the east. Three months later, in May, active fighting would break out again. Quickly, though, the troops settled in for a standoff. By the time the conflict ended, as many as 2,000 people had lost their lives in and around Mostar. In November, 1993, shells from the Croat side destroyed the fabled Stari Most bridge. (The Croats declared the bridge was a strategic target, but scholars and experts scoff at the claim, calling it an example of “killing memory.” The bridge was rebuilt with international aid and reopened in 2004 as a UNESCO World Heritage site.)

During the unsettled times of 1992 into 1993 in the Balkans, Mostar and other cities and regions were disrupted by the pitched battles, sieges and other confrontations involving Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs. Just as Croats contested for influence in the Bosnian region around Mostar, so they challenged Serbia in its northeast province of Vojvodina. Stamps appeared in 1992 with overprints claiming to represent Croat interests in both regions.

fullsizeoutput_1a8fBecause of my
(eccentric?)
fascination with the
very first philatelic
yowls of national
aspiration (even if
they do not last
long), I acquired
some of these sets
— including a
remarkable cover,
illustrated here,
that I must
describe in more detail. The cover contains a set of Yugoslav definitives, overprinted alternately “Souverena Bosna i Herzegovina” and “Souverana Herzeg-Bosna.” The postmark: Mostar. The date: 06.07.92. — July 6, a month after I sent my letter to Mostar in June, and eight months before the stampless return letter to me from Trajaneski Dragi the following February. Just days before this cover was cancelled June 7, the Croats had consolidated their positions in western Mostar. This set from “sovereign” Bosnia- Herzegovina” (the eastern sector?) may appear legitimate. Indeed, it carries what looks like the same cancellation as the envelope I received from Trajaneski Dragi the next February. Yet this set is considered spurious by the philatelic community.

fullsizeoutput_1a8dAlso considered spurious is another set (right), which is listed by a dealer as “Bosnia-Herze-govina/Croatian overprints,” and consists of eight stamps from the Yugoslav definitives, this time with “Jugoslavija” blacked out and replaced by the checkerboard Croatian coat-of-arms.

fullsizeoutput_1a96Another set,
inscribed
“Vojvodina /
Koztarsasag,”
represents
aspirational
autonomy for the
northern Serbian province which neighbors Croatia,
and includes a sizable Croat population. This set — 10 overprints of Yugoslav definitives — is also dismissed as Cinderellas.

Yet anotherfullsizeoutput_1a8c
Cinderella set of
five Yugoslav
definitives
carries the
overprint, “Hrvatska Republika Vojvodina” (Croatian Republic Vojvodina). Nice try, Croatia — and I’ll admit I paid $25 for my set. Today, Croatia survives as a peaceful, modestly prosperous Balkan nation stretched along the sparkling Adriatic Sea— but without Mostar, which is firmly within Bosnia-Herzegovina; and without Vojvodina, which is part of modern Serbia.

I could go on and on about the Cinderella overprints for other Balkan splinter- states of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s — Kosovo, Istra, Sandjak, Krajina … but I sense your patience is wearing thin, dear reader. So let’s quickly review a few more images from the philatelically phractured Balkans, acknowledging that it remains a fertile field of study for Cinderella collectors and others, then move on. I hope that if you delve into this morass and collect stamps from the region, you don’t pay the prices I did!

A small gallery of (a few) legal and (mostly) illegal or Cinderella stamps from the Balkans

 

fullsizeoutput_1a92Bosnia-Herzegovina has had stamps since the 1870s, when it was part of Austro-Hungary. These stamps depicting a charming Bosniak girl were issued in 1918, at the very end of the empire. They are not “real” stamps, but rather newspaper revenue labels. You’ll notice there isn’t even a country name on them. After Bosnia-Herzegovina became part of Yugoslavia, the “anonymous” stamps were reissued, also surcharged (example above), and used for postage. Thus we have an example of a Cinderella stamp fullsizeoutput_1a93that was repurposed as a legitimate postage stamp.

 

fullsizeoutput_1aee

And get a load of this stamp, a delicate  engraving also from 1918. It depicts our old friend, Stari Most — the bridge in Mostar claimed by all three ethnic groups in the stamps illustrated at the top of this commentary.

Version 2Here are more examples of Yugoslav definitives overprinted for “local” use by the territories of fullsizeoutput_1ab8Istra (above right), Sandza (right) and Zapadna (below right). I could spend time trying to fullsizeoutput_1ab6figure out if these are cities, or regions, or states of mind in the Balkan universe — but I won’t. I am intrigued by the longhorn in the Istra coat of arms, the Islamic star and crescent moon for Sandzak, and the fleur de lis and banner for Zapadna — they all suggest multi-ethnic aspirations in contention. I appreciate the struggle, and am glad that everyone seems to have worked things out sufficiently to be living in peace. I like to think of these stamps — all illegal, as far as I know — as emblems of a process that has led to tolerance, coexistence and self-expression.

 

fullsizeoutput_1ab7The breakaway Balkan province of Kosovo is a whole story of its own, which I won’t try to retell here. Instead, I display two philatelic artifacts from its modern history. The first set, above, is a Cinderella issue representing Kosovo’s national aspirations. fullsizeoutput_1a81The stamps at right  were issued on behalf of the NATO peacekeeping force that did so much to keep things from going from bad to worse in Kosovo. Emerging from U.N. supervision, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Its autonomy remains in dispute — Kosovo is not a member of the U.N. or the Universal Postal Union, so its stamps may or may not be legal …

 

fullsizeoutput_1abbHere are early stamps from the Serbian side in Bosnia-Herzigovina. In the top row, the stamps are inscribed “Republica Srpskpa,” which corresponds to the name for territory within national borders, but somehow distinct from the federation itself (see map, above). The lower row of stamps add the word Krajina. This refers to Serbia’s claim to territory extending into Croatia, essentially redefining the borders (krajina means “frontier.”) NIce try, Serbia. Eventually the krajina was reaffirmed as the pre-existing border between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Krajina label was never recognized internationally, so these stamps are illegals, or Cinderellas — though as you see below, there are postally used examples of these stamps on covers.

fullsizeoutput_1a89Here are a couple of covers I purchased on eBay for a few bucks each. The one on the left features stamps from Republica Srpska which are supposed to be illegal, but were postally accepted just the same on this letter to Italy. The stamps fullsizeoutput_1a88on the the right-hand cover were used internally. As the postmarks indicate, the covers originated in Banja Luka, a city in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina that today lies within the boundaries of the Serbian-claimed territory.

 

fullsizeoutput_1abdThis oddment at right was listed on eBay as “Travnik probe 1992.” I believe it was issued during the Croat-Muslim conflict around Travnik in the central region of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. (The fleu-de-lis design echoes the Zapadna Cinderellas, above.) The price on eBay is just a few bucks, but I’d pay more than that for an example of this stamp postally used on an envelope.

 

fullsizeoutput_1a8aI include these two covers I bought for my collection, both mailed in Mostar, to illustrate how illegal stamps can be used on legitimately posted letters. Both letters were mailed internally — the one below right didn’t even leave Mostar. Something about the postmarks struck me. The envelope above left is dated 30.2.92 — Feb. 30, fullsizeoutput_1a8b1992. The one below it  was postmarked 02.08.92 — Aug. 2, 1992. You may recall that I mailed my international postal coupon to Mostar in June, 1992 — four months after the first cover was postmarked, two months before the second cover was processed. My letter should have arrived in Mostar in plenty of time for a return cover to be embellished with those same stamps, legal or not. OK, I understand postal officials may have been distracted by a few things, including civil war. What may be most surprising is that old Trajaneski Dragi got around to responding to my inquiry at all. By February 1993, it seems there were no more stamps available — legal or illegal. Where did the stamps go? Did they just run out? Were they confiscated by one side or the other?

 

fullsizeoutput_1abaFinally, here is an image I captured from the internet. The overprint is intriguing: It sets a date — 11.05.1994 — that’s May 11, 1994, more than a year before the Dayton Accords would end the Balkan conflict. The stamps bear the inscription “BiH Konfederacija” — Confederation of Bosnia- Herzegovina — and alternating cities, Vienna and Geneva. What role did these cities full of diplomats and international civil servants play, along the road to Dayton? And what about that word, confederacija? The Dayton agreement established Bosnia-Herzegovina as a formal “federation,” not a loose “confederation” of sovereign states. Thus, these stamps not only are Cinderellas, but they rapidly were superseded by history.

END OF PART FOUR: 3

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