- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

SMILJAN, Croatia — The world knows Nikola Tesla as a pioneer of electrical power, but in his native Balkans, he is a symbol of ethnic strife. Now the 150th anniversary of his birth is serving as a force for healing.

Because he was an ethnic Serb born in Croatia, Tesla’s memory became a subject of bitter contention in the 1990s when the breakup of Yugoslavia triggered a war between Serbs and Croats that killed thousands.

A statue of Tesla, a naturalized U.S. citizen, stands at Niagara Falls in tribute to his role in bringing electricity to America. However, his statue in Croatia was blown up and the house where he grew up fell into ruin. His portrait, which had graced a Yugoslav bank note, was left off the new Croatian currency.

The crowning irony for war-battered Croatia is that hundreds of villages around Smiljan, his native town, have no electricity.

“If Tesla rose from the dead, he wouldn’t believe it,” said Marija Batinic, 50, who lives near Smiljan and said she thinks the heavily Serbian region of central Croatia is being deprived of electricity because of ethnic discrimination.

One reason for Tesla’s transformation from non-person to national hero in Croatia is the European Union, which wants the country to show gestures of reconciliation toward its Serbs as a condition for joining the prosperous club of democracies.

The government has spent $8.75 million turning his house into a museum.

Earlier this month, a new statue of Tesla was unveiled in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, and two more are planned.

Parliament has declared 2006 to be Tesla’s year, and his motto — “equally proud of my Serb origin and my Croatian homeland” — has become a mantra. A recent poll chose him as Croatia’s “greatest son.”

Croatia’s Serbian minority, about 12 percent of the population of 4.5 million before the war, is down to 3 percent, many of them in the villages around Smiljan in central Croatia.

The government denies discrimination, blaming the power shortage on a lack of funds. It has promised to restore electricity to about 300 villages when it can get the money.

Tesla was born on the midnight of July 9-10, 1856. He studied and worked across Europe and lived in New York from 1885 until his death at 86.

He was awarded patents on every aspect of the modern system for generating and distributing electricity — including in radio and the modern concept of radar. He installed Niagara Falls’ first hydroelectric power system and invented the Tesla coil, a key component of radio and television.

Yet his last years were troubled. He fell out with Thomas Edison because the latter ignored his inventions in alternating-current electricity. He sued Guglielmo Marconi to gain recognition for his inventions in radio.

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