Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegović cited increasingly fragile health and "misunderstandings" between Bosnia-Hercegovina and the international community as the primary reasons for his early retirement from BiH's three-person Presidency on 14 October. But Izetbegović, 75, also recognized that the political atmosphere in the country he led during the 1992 to 1995 war has changed.
To say that Izetbegović was an important figure in 1990s Bosnia is a gross understatement. Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, has stated, "if it were not for Alija Izetbegović, Bosnia would not exist today." But being a wartime leader is not the same thing as being a peacetime leader, and the years since Dayton have seen Izetbegović and his Party for Democratic Action (SDA) come increasingly under criticism from the media, BiH citizens and the international community overseeing the implementation of the Dayton Accords.
Izetbegović's voluntary retirement shows that he is not blind to the past year's changes in Croatia, Bosnia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Both leaders with whom he had co-signed the Dayton Accords are gone. Croatia's Franjo Tuđman died last December, and his ruling HDZ was defeated in elections the next month. FRY's Slobodan Milošević is also out following last month's elections and the street protests that ensued. Neither Croat or Serb nationalism are as virulent or as prevalent as they were eight or ten years ago. With these two threats to the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) people lessened, Izetbegović's SDA has lost its mission.
And the party has little to show for its decade in power. The BiH economy is in shambles. Foreign investers are blocked by beaurucratic hassles. People who are lucky enough to have jobs make an average of between USD 200 and USD 300 per month. Bosniaks are seeing that the SDA is no longer their only option.
A declining party
As of a few months ago, Izetbegović's SDA was on the decline, and he himself was the leader of a people whose latest votes have rejected his leadership, and a poltician whose nationalism is becoming increasingly irrelevent.
Alija Izetbegović was born in 1925 in the northern Bosnian town of Bosanski Samac and graduated from the Unversity of Sarajevo with a law degree. His Islamic beliefs earned him two separate stints in prison. The first, in 1946, was for his membership in the Young Muslims, a group with close ties to the Islamic clergy in BiH. He served three years in prison.
Until the 1980s he worked as a legal consultant but, in 1983, was again imprisoned by Communist authorities for distributing "Islamic propaganda," serving five years of a 14-year sentence.
When Communism collapsed throughout Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990, non-Communist parties in Yugoslavia's republics were legalized. Izetbegović founded the SDA (for Bosnian Muslims) in May 1990, and in that November's elections, he became a member of the seven-member collective state presidency, composed of two representatives each for Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, and one representative for all other groups.
Izetbegović was often seen by foreigners as a voice for a multi-ethnic Bosnia-Hercegovina, but his well-known Islamic beliefs and his summer 1991 application to join the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) did not encourage many Bosnian Serbs to believe they would have a future in their new country.
In hindsight, Izetbegović has also been criticized for his naïveté in choosing independence for BiH in 1992. He knew full well that a war could follow, but did not prepare an army for it. It must also be said, however, that if Milošević had not armed Arkan's Tigers, Šešelj's Šešeljovci and Karadžić's SDS, Izetbegović would not have needed to prepare for a war at all.
By 1992, Izetbegović's choices were to either opt for independence or remain in a Yugoslavia that had shown, throughout the 1980s (in Kosovo), that it had no patience for autonomous minorities. Journalist Roger Cohen acknowledged this in his book Hearts Grown Brutal:
Throughout the year leading to the first fighting in mid-1991 (in Slovenia), Izetbegović cast around for solutions that would avoid bloodshed. He and Kiro Gligorov, the Macedonian president, put forward a plan for a loose Yugoslav confederation—sovereign states within a sovereign state. Later, after fighting broke out in Slovenia and then Croatia, he called for the pre-emptive dispatch of United Nations peacekeepers to Bosnia.
His appeal went unanswered. It was not Muslim nationalism that lacerated Bosnia; it was the Serb and Croat nationalism that preceded it in Serbia and Croatia. If Izetbegović was ready to countenance war, he seems to have had no enthusiasm for it. Violence, however, was always part of Milošević's equation.
No taste for war
That Izetbegović had no taste for war was made evident by his public statement in spring 1992. Parts of BiH were already occupied when he told the parliament, "Narode, spavaj mirno, rata neće biti." (Sleep peacefully people, there will not be a war.)
When the international community recognized Bosnia-Hercegovina's independence on April 6, 1992, the war began in earnest. Serb paramilitary forces began the ethnic cleansing of eastern Bosnia and the (Serb) Yugoslav National Army began the siege of Sarajevo.
But when war did come to Sarajevo and to BiH, Izetbegovic stayed put. Unlike his ex-Yugoslav counterparts, Tuđman and Milošević, Izetbegović was not making decisions in a government building while the war raged miles away. For three and a half years he tried to get the UN and NATO to do something besides deliver humanitarian aid to Bosnia while it was under attack, first from Serb and then from Croat forces.
Carving up and holding on
By 1995, his Republic of BiH Army was in a shaky coalition with the Croats and had evened the score with the Serbs so that the two sides each had about 50 percent of BiH territory. The Serbs were ready to negotiate rather than lose what land they had left.
Izetbegović went to Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995, and came back with a peace agreement that split BiH into the Federation of BiH (51 percent of BiH territory) and the Republika Srspska (49 percent). Izetbegović said the treaty signed the next month was better than war, but far from a just peace.
After Dayton, the three nationalist parties in BiH, including Izetbegović and his SDA, kept iron-clad control over their constituents. The war was over, but a typical BiH election was essentially a census. If an area had a Bosniak majority of voters, the SDA was a shoe-in. The same was true of Croat and Serb areas with the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Serb Democratic Party (SDS). Meanwhile, refugee returns were dismally slow and BiH's economy was a wreck.
A peacetime hinderance?
The April 2000 municipal elections were a different story, however. Maybe the change was fueled by the fact that, four months before, Croatia voted Tuđman's HDZ out and elected Stipe Mesić president. Or maybe Bosniak voters realized that Izetbegović's SDA government, a godsend to them during war, had become a hinderance in peace.
The SDA, for example, had only a new short stretch of highway on the outskirts of Sarajevo as its crowning achievement in five years of peace. A New York Times article in August 1999 made claims (most of them unsubstantianted, but it was enough to mar Izetbegović's reputation) that USD one billion in aid money had gone into the pockets of various nationalist politicians instead of to its intended destinations.
There were also rumors in Sarajevo of non-SDA members being evicted from their business spaces, and of streets in front of non-SDA members' houses left uncleared of snow during last year's particularly rough winter.
Then there was also the SDA's harassment of the Dnevni Avaz newspaper. The paper had been critical of the party on all counts, and early one morning the Federation financial police appeared to do an "inspection" and wanted to shut the paper down because of alleged irregularities. The paper continued publishing.
Izetbegović also found himself under criticism from the international community. Privatization and economic reform have moved at a snail's pace, and Serb and Croat refugee returns to Bosniak areas have not been going as quickly as they could be. The Office of the High Representative (OHR), which oversees Dayton's implementation, has disagreed with him on many issues.
When Izetbegović retired, he said that the international community had pushed through reforms at the expense of the Bosniak people.
"Our relationship has course not been spotless," said OHR spokesperon Alexandra Stiglmayer. "We've had different views on property laws, media questions and other issues."
As for the SDA's claim that the international community's reforms are disenfranchising Bosniaks, Stiglmayer said it is a common complaint from all the political leaders: Bosniak, Croat and Serb.
"When they don't like something, they claim it damages or does harm to their constituents," she said.
All of these things—friction with the international community, political changes in Croatia, allegations of corruption and a lack of concrete accomplishments—took their toll on the SDA. The party lost control of all of Sarajevo and several other Federation municipalities in the April municipal elections.
Omnipotence slipping away
Then, for the first time since the SDA was founded, Izetbegović found his omnipotence within the party slipping away. The party voted for its new main board in May, and ignored Izetbegović's favored candidates, giving support instead to the more radical Omer Behmen and Hasan Ćengić.
It is not just Izetbegović's political power that has been waning. His health has not been the best lately either. His last visit to the United States, for the UN Millenium Summit in New York City, ended with him in the hospital with pneumonia. And he is, after all, in his mid-seventies.
He cited both his age and his health as reasons when he announced his retirement in June. But he told the Sarajevo daily Oslobođenje in his 14 October farewell interview that he is only retiring from the Presidency and not from political life entirely. He will, instead, work within the SDA. He told the paper that the party has a future, will remain a political factor in BiH and will become stronger.
"This, for me, has been a struggle and not politics," Izetbegović said. "This began for me in my seventies, and this sort of struggle doesn't end when I get my pension. But one thing is certain: I will never again be a candidate for any sort of state office."
The final goodbye
But this is definitely Izetbegović's goodbye. Unlike in 1998, when he said if he was in his right mind he would never again run for public office, his retirement is now a done deal. This time around, he has also said that it is the new generation's responsibility to take over and run BiH.
"Bosnia survived, and step by step is becoming a normal and functional country. That will last, but the new generation will finish the job," he said.
Taking over Izetbegović's Presidency seat is Bosniak BiH Parliament Speaker Halid Genjać. Genjać, an SDA member, said at Izetbegović's retirement ceremony on 14 October that he had earned an honorable place in history for his role in leading the government during the war.
Genjać will serve in the Presidency until the next parliament chooses a replacement.
Gracefully walking away
The year 2000 has seen the political atmosphere in the heart of what was once the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia change. Last year, a patient friend told me, "Don't worry, Tuđman is in the hospital, Milošević is gonna do a suicide, and Alija will have to leave too."
When Tuđman did die in December 1999, the attitude of many Sarajevans was, "One down, two to go." But while only death could remove the Croatian quasi-dictator and it took riots and strikes to dislodge Milošević from his FRY presidency, Izetbegović left on his own accord.
Richard Holbrooke's comment that there would be no Bosnia without Izetbegović was true in the early part of this decade. But now, the idea that people need a nationalist political party to protect themselves from "others" is slowly becoming old news. BiH doesn't need Izetbegović to ensure its own survival anymore.
His graceful stepping down shows that he knows that.
Beth Kampschror, 23 October 2000
Photo credit: BHString
- Archive of news reviews from Bosnia-Hercegovina
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page