S2E5. Tesla in the monetary storm
Thanks to the Euro area Member States' approval, Croatia can outline the steps to produce euro coins. But Serbia is contesting the decision to imprint the image of the famous engineer
welcome back to BarBalkans, the newsletter with blurred boundaries.
Where there is money, there is a war. Or vice versa.
It is something as old as human history and every generation has had its own conflicts caused by money in some form. Land, oil, cocaine, diamonds. Power.
It hardly ever happened that the clash between two countries was triggered by the symbol to be printed on currency.
However, if we are in the Western Balkans, this can also happen.
The protagonists are Belgrade and Zagreb.
At the centre of this diplomatic and monetary dispute is the Serbian-Croatian inventor Nikola Tesla.
All this controversy over the mintage of the European Union’s official currency.
The Croatian euro
It all stems from the process of adoption of the euro by Croatia, which is ready to become the 20th EU Member State to use the European single currency.
On July 10, 2020, Zagreb was admitted to the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM II), the prelude to the Euro area.
The rules require the country to spend at least two years in the system designed to reduce the variability of exchange rates between currencies, in order to achieve monetary stability.
Entering ERM II means lower interest rates, better integration into the European Single Market, increased investor confidence and lower conversion costs.
As explained by the governor of the Croatian Central Bank (HNB), Boris Vujčić, the country needs to bring the public deficit below 3% of GDP and to reduce public debt.
The exchange rate is expected to be 7.53 Croatian kuna to 1 euro, even if Croatian economists are very concerned about it.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenković expects to introduce the euro in 2023, but the most realistic date seems to be January 1, 2024.
And so far, nothing controversial.
One year later, on July 21, 2021, Zagreb announced the final proposals for the motifs for the future Croatian euro coins.
They will be:
the šahovnica, the red-and-white chequered coat of arms of the Republic of Croatia;
the geographical map of Croatia;
the marten, the mammal animal known as kuna in Croatia (hence the name of the current national currency);
the Glagolitic script, the oldest known Slavic alphabet;
Nikola Tesla, inventor, physicist and electrical engineer.
«The basic selection criteria were the acceptability to the general public, regardless of regional affiliation, age, ideological or political affiliation, and its effectiveness to be a national symbol, that means to achieve a high degree of identification», the government stated.
Around 50 thousand citizens responded to the call of Croatian National Bank and they could submit suggestions.
Tesla’s image was the most voted motif. One out of four citizens would like to see it on the 50-, 20- or 10-cent coins.
The final decision will be taken by the National Council for the introduction of the euro.
Just yesterday (September 10) a milestone was put in Croatia’s efforts to join the Euro area, during the meeting of the Eurogroup which took place in Brdo (Slovenia).
The European Commission and the Euro area Member States signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Croatia outlining the practical steps that will allow the country to begin producing euro coins, once it receives the green light to join the Euro area.
The Memorandum of Understanding now allows Croatia to carry out all the necessary preparations up to the actual minting of euro coins.
These include the official selection of the euro coin national side designs, the production of minting tools and coin test runs, and the arrangements for the withdrawal of the Croatian kuna during the changeover.
As the moment for Croatia to join the Euro area approaches, the controversy over the issue has already broken out across the border.
One Tesla for two countries
Although dead for 78 years, Tesla, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, is at the centre of a cultural and identity clash between Serbia and Croatia.
Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in Smiljan, in strip of land of the Austro-Hungarian Empire located in present-day Croatia. His family was ethnic Serb.
At the age of 28 he emigrated to the United States, where he won the “war of the currents” against Thomas Edison and developed alternating current on a large scale.
He became one of the most important engineers in the field of electricity and he died in 1943 in New York.
The Serbo-Croatian inventor’s personal effects were shipped from New York to Belgrade, including his ashes in a golden urn.
Everything is now in a museum dedicated to him (which we visited virtually during last season).
Croatia has also founded its own Nikola Tesla Memorial Center in Smiljan, in the house where the inventor was born.
But it was in the Nineties - after the dissolution of Yugoslavia - that Serbia and Croatia began fighting over Tesla’s legacy, naming buildings, monuments and streets after the Serbian inventor born on Croatian soil.
The dispute, never resolved but always latent, broke out in all its complications with the Croatian vote on the motifs for the future euro coins.
This vote would potentially place Tesla’s image printed on the Croatian euro in the pockets of 350 million Europeans, further promoting the country’s claim on the inventor’s legacy.
For Belgrade, the Croatian decision would constitute a sort of «appropriation of the cultural and scientific heritage of the Serbian people», since Tesla was of ethnic Serbian origin.
It is no coincidence that the renowned engineer’s image already appears on the 100 Serbian dinar banknote, or that Belgrade frequently issues commemorative coins related to his anniversaries.
The National Bank of Serbia has started a real battle against what has been called a «forced posthumous croatianization of Nikola Tesla».
First, Serbia bases its arguments on the idea that culture, ethnicity and personal identity are more important than place of birth. His father, Milutin Tesla, was an Orthodox priest whose family had a long history in the Serbian army.
Moreover, Croatia was not independent at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at least until the Kingdom’s autonomy was achieved in 1868 (12 years after Tesla’s birth).
On the other side, the Croatian Minister of Culture and Media, Nina Obuljen-Koržinek replied that «I can’t even understand why they are complaining, it is irrelevant».
For Zagreb there is no even debate. Tesla was born in Smiljan, a Croatian village 50 kilometres from Zadar. This is evidenced by his passport, which bears the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Croatia.
And then there is a statement Tesla himself made at a conference on alternating current and the construction of a hydroelectric power station at the Plitvice Lakes, held in Zagreb in 1892:
«As a son of my homeland I feel that it is my duty to help the city of Zagreb though my advice and my work».
Which homeland the engineer was talking about, Zagreb and Belgrade are still arguing about.
Although we could look for the lighter side of the whole affair. For example, the fact that a Serb could end up on the European single currency, waiting for the country’s long-awaited EU membership.
Or even that the National Bank of Serbia have an advantage. A current employee of the central bank with a very familiar name: Nikola Tesla.
Pit stop. Sittin’ at the BarBalkans
We have reached the end of this piece of road.
We have seen that Serbo-Croatian Nikola Tesla emigrated and made his fortune in the United States. There, he became a naturalized US citizen and one of the greatest electrical engineers in history.
Something similar can be found - with due proportion - on our bar, the BarBalkans.
Kinsman Rakija takes us all the way to San Antonio, Texas.
Almost 10 thousand kilometers from the Balkan peninsula, in the heart of the Wild West, a distillery has been producing and selling the most famous Balkan spirit since 2013.
It is the Dorćol Distilling + Brewing Company, named after the Belgrade neighbourhood where one of its two founders, Bojan Kalusević, was born and raised.
Like many others in the Balkans, his grandparents and uncles produced homemade rakija. When he emigrated with his family to San Antonio in 1992, at the age of 10, he brought this experience with him to the US.
At the University of Texas, Kalusević met Chris Mobley and the two students became passionate about distilling. In 2011, they developed a project that was implemented two years later.
Until eight years ago, no one in the US filled this niche market. The two young distillers decided to conquer it with traditional recipes, methods and equipment.
For example, the most valuable piece of equipment is a copper pot still, hand-hammered and welded by a third-generation coppersmith from Novi Sad, in Serbia.
No industrially produced alcohols (that are cheap) and no sugars or flavors (which alter the essence) are used to produce the fruit distillate.
The biggest challenge is to introduce a new type of alcohol into Americans’ habits, since in the US rakija is not as well known as in Europe.
But after almost ten years of work, Kinsman Rakija is expanding and can already be found in many US cities.
Day after day, Kalusević’s dream of becoming Balkan rakija’s Tesla is coming true.
Let’s continue the BarBalkans journey. We will meet again in a week, for the 6th stop.
A big hug and have a good journey!
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