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:
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 to
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
claimed, echoed by his hagiographers, that he “saved” the Bosnian
Muslims from “Serb aggression and genocide.” In reality, he
them – 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
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 Muslim
associate 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
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
protectorate 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.
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.
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.
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.