Today I want to do something which I have not done in a long while: interview somebody by email and give that person the space to fully answer. For those interested, in the past I did that with Mizgin (Kurdistan), Roger Tucker (One Democratic State), Taimur (Indian Kashmir), Gilad Atzmon (Palestine), Joel Bainerman (Israel), Uri Avnery (Israel), Jonathan Cook (Palestine), Joel S. Hirschhorn (USA), Anticapitalista (Greece) and Scott Horton (USA). I think that I like this format and I will come back to it again.
[BTW – my dream would be to make such an “email interview” with a Hezbollah official or party member but, alas, all my attempts to obtain such an interview have, so far, failed. If anybody could help me get such an interview I would be eternally thankful to him/her!!]
Just a few days after seeing him interviewed by Peter Lavelle on RT about Crimea, I got an email from Nebojsa Malic who blogs at Gray Falcon and who is currently President of the R. Archibald Reiss Institute for Serbian Studies in Washington, DC. I immediately seized the opportunity to ask him a question which had been nagging at me for many years already.
I understand that the topic of war in Bosnia might reopen old wounds for some readers and I also understand that some might categorically disagree with Nebojsa Malic’s point of view. To those readers I would say two things: the war in Bosnia left everybody wounded, not just one group. As for what lessons can be learned from this war, they might be painful, but they are also important because of the undeniable fact that what happened in Bosnia was the blueprint which was subsequently applied to Kosovo, Chechnia, Libya, Syria and the Ukraine.
I would very much welcome another point of view on this topic, especially one from a supporter of Alija Izetbegovic. If somebody is willing to share such a point of view here, I would be delighted to publish it.
Finally, and especially because this is a painful topic, I will be far stricter than usual in my comments moderation policy. While everybody will be free to express disagreements or criticisms, any comment which will be rude or include any ad hominems will be deleted. Likewise, I will tolerate no insults towards any of the Bosnian ethnic and religious groups involved in this war. We all probably think that this or that party was in the right, and that’s fine, but at the end all parties are first and foremost victims of this war. Thus they ideally all deserve respect and, if that is impossible, then at least basic courtesy. This restriction does not apply to any of the external parties to this conflict whom you may insult to your heart’s content (if you feel that this adds something useful to the conversation).
A big “thank you!” to Nebojsa Malic for his time and very interesting answer.
Question from The Saker:
Ever since the war in Bosnia began, I have been convinced that the Bosnian-Muslims have been conned by the USA into the wrong alliance and that they would have been infinitely better off if they had sided with the Serbs against the Croats. Do you agree with that? If not – why not? As far as I know, Radovan Karadzic made several offers to make a deal, but they were all rejected. Is that true? Can you be specific and outline what the Bosnian-Serbs offered as a basis for negotiations? I also know that some Bosnian-Muslims were favorable to a dialog with the Bosnian-Serbs – why did that never happen? There is the mostly overlooked example of Fikret Abdic in Bihac. Why was his “model” not emulated by other Bosnian-Muslim leaders? Why has a “Bosnian Akhmad Kadyrov” not appeared during this war? Lastly, what are your hopes for a future national reconciliation between all Bosnians?
Answer from Nebojsa Malic:
My experience in Bosnia is enough to sell me on the idea of powerful personalities as forces of history. Because a lot of what happened in Bosnia cannot be explained other than through the man who emerged as the leader of the Bosnian Muslims, Alija Izetbegovic.
The rift between Bosnia’s communities is religious, but also historical. The Serbs are natives who remained loyal to the Orthodox Church. Bosnia’s Muslims are mainly local converts to Islam over the four centuries of Ottoman rule (1461-1878). And then you have the locals who converted to Catholicism, as well as settlers who arrived from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the 1878-1918 occupation; these two groups were later shoehorned into the catch-all category of “Croats.”
A century ago, there were both Serb, Croat and Muslim members of “Young Bosnia,” the organization behind the 1914 assassination of the Hapsburg heir in Sarajevo that was later used as a pretext for WW1. When Austria-Hungary fell apart at the end of the war, the unified state of South Slavs (in 1929 renamed “Yugoslavia”) got mired in a bitter conflict between the Orthodox Serb majority and the Catholic Croats. When Hitler invaded in 1941, Croats sided with the Axis and established their own state, which immediately began the mass murder of Serbs. Many Muslims, sadly, joined the Croats in this endeavor, perhaps seeing the German Reich as the return of Austria-Hungary (within which most of their Ottoman privileges were preserved). Others backed the Germans directly, unhappy that the Ustasha regime saw them as nothing more than “Islamic Croats.”
One of those people was the young Alija Izetbegovic – too young to join the two Muslim Waffen-SS divisions, but old enough to be an activist. Briefly imprisoned by the Communist regime after the war, he was released and later went to law school.
Originally intent on dismembering Yugoslavia, Tito’s Communists rethought the idea when they came into power in 1945. So they partitioned the country into “socialist republics.” One of these republics reunited the two Ottoman provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina into a single polity, which was supposed to hold Yugoslavia together as a place belonging to Serbs, Muslims and Croats alike. A system of ethnic quotas was put into place to encourage parity, and in the 1960s the Muslims were recognized not just as a religious group, but as a proper nation (narod, as opposed tonarodnost).
In 1971, young Izetbegovic wrote a treatise called “The Islamic Declaration,” calling for a return of secularized Muslim societies to political Islam – eight years before the revolution in Iran did precisely that. But his samizdat wasn’t noticed until the early 1980s, when Albanian separatism began manifesting as terrorist attacks, and the Communists jailed Izetbegovic – with a dozen associates – on charges of “inciting ethnic hatred”. Agitating the loudest for his release was a group of Serbian writers and political activists.
The Yugoslav Communist Party started to come apart in 1989, and by 1990, individual republics were holding their own elections. Izetbegovic met with a prominent Muslim who had been living in exile in Switzerland – Adil Zulfikarpasic – and together with him and historian Muhamed Filipovic established the “Party of Democratic Action” (SDA). This was prior to the abolition of a law banning ethnic political parties, hence the neutral name. Zulfikarpasic invested his money, Filipovic his idea of a Muslim-dominated “Bosniak” nation, and Izetbegovic his zeal. They scored another success by talking Fikret Abdic into headlining the SDA’s election ticket. Abdic was a successful Muslim businessman from western Bosnia, who late in the 1980s crossed a powerful political clan and was railroaded on charges of embezzlement; this garnered him much sympathy among all Bosnians, in addition to his regional popularity.
Meanwhile, the Bosnian Serbs split their support between the “nationalist” Serb Democratic Party (SDS) and the more “Yugoslav”-oriented Social-Democrats and the Reformist Alliance. SDS leader Radovan Karadzic, a poet and psychiatrist, kept trying to negotiate a “historic agreement” with the Muslims. But a deal he made with Zulfikarpasic and Filipovic was rejected by Izetbegovic, and the two were driven out of the SDA. After Abdic had won most of the votes in the presidential poll, he was pressured to cede the chair of the seven-member body to Izetbegovic, who thus became “President of Bosnia”.
Meanwhile, at Izetbegovic’s instructions, the SDA made a pact with the Croats (the local branch of the ruling Croatian party, HDZ, aiming to resurrect the 1940s independent Croatia). Even then, the Serbs offered Izetbegovic a deal: he could be the president of Yugoslavia, composed of Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and possibly Macedonia. He said no. In February 1991 he famously declared: “I would sacrifice peace for a sovereign Bosnia-Herzegovina… but for that peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina I would not sacrifice sovereignty.” In October 1991, SDA and HDZ legislators illegally called an independence referendum.
The last-ditch effort by the Europeans to salvage peace in Bosnia resulted in the “Cutilheiro plan” proposed by the top Portuguese diplomat. Under it, Bosnia would be partitioned into three ethnic provinces, but in return the Serbs and Croats would recognize its independence and integrity. Izetbegovic signed it at first – then, in mid-March 1992, following the visit by U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, reneged on the deal. The Croats were already raiding the border areas, seeking to continue Croatia’s war (officially ended by the January 1992 armistice) by proxy in Bosnia. Faced with the complete collapse of political dialogue, the Serbs took to arms as well.
Izetbegovic’s entire strategy was to get the U.S. military involved on his behalf. Meanwhile, he entrusted the head of the ulema, Mustafa Ceric, to “Islamize” the Muslims in line with Izetbegovic’s 1971 declaration, even to the point of importing Wahhabis and “Afghans” to serve as missionaries.
Fikret Abdic tried to make peace even then. He had left Sarajevo in March 1992, going back to western Bosnia. In 1993, he proclaimed the “Autonomous Region of Western Bosnia” (Autonomna Oblast Zapadna Bosna). At the time, Izetbegovic’s alliance with the Croats had fallen apart, and Muslims and Croats were fighting viciously in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both the Serbs and the Croats had made separate peace with Abdic.
While Izetbegovic thought he was using the Americans, they were using him. Washington continued to sink several European peace initiatives in 1992 and 1993, while gradually dragging NATO into the Bosnian War at the expense of the UN. In 1994, Washington arranged a truce between Izetbegovic’s Muslims and the Croats and forced them into a military alliance, as well as the political one (“Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina”). The Croatian Army was armed and trained by American “contractors” and in August 1995 – backed by NATO – launched an all-out assault on the Serb-inhabited territories claimed by Croatia. This was the cue for Izetbegovic’s Fifth Corps to attack Abdic. Outnumbered, outgunned and unable to get support from the hard-pressed Serbs, Abdic’s followers surrendered. They have been persecuted ever since.
But Washington had its own agenda: by ending the war in Bosnia, America could posture as a white knight coming to the aid of oppressed Muslims (thus scoring propaganda points in the Muslim world) while reasserting dominance over Europe. In the minds of American leaders, by the time the Dayton peace talks began, Izetbegovic and the Bosnian War had served their purpose.
According to Richard Holbrooke, chief US negotiator at the Dayton talks in November 1995, Izetbegovic tried to sabotage the talks several times. Holbrooke’s memoirs relate the Americans’ frustration with Izetbegovic at that point, describing how he drove even the normally sanguine Warren Christopher into a paroxysm of rage. In the end, Izetbegovic gave in – the Americans had secured the backing of the Serbs, the Croats, and the rest of his delegation, and he could not refuse the peace plan without being obviously responsible. The Bosnian War ended with a partition. It was essentially the same plan the Americans urged Izetbegovic to reject in 1992, only now a 100,000 people were dead and the country destroyed by war.
Izetbegovic claimed, echoed by his hagiographers, that he “saved” the Bosnian Muslims from “Serb aggression and genocide.” In reality, he almost destroyedthem – by pushing them into a suicidal war against their friends, neighbors and relatives, by letting the West use them as propaganda pawns, and in the end by stealing from the billions of dollars in foreign aid that came to Bosnia after the war. Bosnia’s economy never recovered, but the bank accounts of SDA officials benefited handsomely.
With his wartime propaganda poisoning the well of Muslim relations with Serbs and Croats, it has been impossible to glue Bosnia together even 18 years after Dayton. Not only did he destroy the inter-ethnic trust by reneging on agreements with Serbs and Croats, Izetbegovic also deceived and discarded every Muslimassociate of his. He double-crossed Zulfikarpasic, Filipovic before the war, Abdic during, and his wartime lieutenants Ganic and Silajdzic afterwards. The warlords he personally commanded during the war (such as Jusuf “Juka” Prazina or Musan “Caco” Topalovic) ended up dead on Belgian roads, or “shot while attempting to escape” police custody, or victims of mysterious suicides and “car accidents.”
None of this absolves the West from responsibility for the Bosnian tragedy, by the way. Their attempts to use Izetbegovic may have been the deciding factor in plunging Bosnia into war. And their behavior after Dayton – making Bosnia into a de factoprotectorate and trying to impose their vision of what the country should be (which was often conflicted, and always confused) – created a powerful disincentive for any sort of internal dialogue. This is why the legacy of hatred and distrust has persisted to the present day, even though Izetbegovic himself died in 2003.
What motivated his hatred of the Serbs is difficult to divine – some say it was his family history, as they left Serbia in 1867 and settled in Bosnia, ever resentful of the Serb “infidels” – but ultimately doesn’t matter. The damage has been done. A generation of Muslims has grown up learning to hate the Serbs and Croats, and believe themselves the victims to whom the West owes a living. The real question is who among the Bosnian Muslims will have the courage to challenge Izetbegovic’s political dogma, and the vision to transcend it. Right now, there is no one that comes to mind.
Though Sulejman Tihic, who succeeded Izetbegovic as the head of the SDA in 2001, has made many attempts to mend fences with the Serbs over the years, the “old guard” within the party – led by Izetbegovic’s son Bakir – successfully undermined all his efforts. To make matters worse, Tihic has cancer, and his prognosis is terminal.
I hope the same is not true of the future of Bosnia. But nothing gives me reason to be optimistic.
Nebojsa Malic was born in Sarajevo (today the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina) and lived through the Bosnian War. He was a translator for the Sarajevo City Hall in 1995, as well as a freelance interpreter to the Anglosphere media. After leaving Bosnia in 1996, he got a BA in History and International Studies from Graceland University in Iowa. He started writing on Balkans issues in 1999, blogs at Gray Falcon since 2004, and is currently President of the R. Archibald Reiss Institute for Serbian Studies in Washington, DC.
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