Man of decent intentions, but flawed


Alija Izetbegovic, the first president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has died aged 78 in Sarajevo. His was a short - and a late - political career, and one to which he always seemed ill suited, as if history had played a cruel joke in casting him in a key role in the sad and brutal war disfiguring the Balkans.

Izetbegovic, a devout and mild-mannered Slav Muslim, chalked up just over five years as president of Bosnia (1990-96) and after that four years as co-president (1996-2000) in the wake of the Dayton peace treaty of December 1995. As president, he spent most of that time leading the fight for his country's very survival.

In a former Yugoslavia destroyed by misrule and betrayed by a host of treacherous, power-hungry leaders, Izetbegovic stood out as a decent sort.

Even so, he blundered and schemed to the detriment of the cause he professed to be serving - that of an integrated Bosnia. He was more sinned against than sinning, but he was no angel either, and since his death the UN Hague war crimes tribunal has admitted that he was under investigation.

Izetbegovic emerged from obscurity at the end of the 1980s as the political battles that accompanied the collapse of communism and the nationalist ascendancy were being played out. In the spring of 1990 he helped form and was chosen leader of the Democratic Action Party.

In the first modern multi-party elections in November of that year, the Muslim party was strongest, by virtue of representing the biggest single national group, 44 per cent of the pre-war population.

By this time the Bosnian political spectrum had already split along ethnic lines. President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia sponsored the creation of the Bosnian wing of his Croatian Democratic Union, while Radovan Karadzic's Serbian Democratic Party, controlled by Belgrade, became the other main force.

Such a politics of ethnic exclusiveness made the war predictable. In opting for ethnic politics, Izetbegovic was as guilty as the Serbian and Croatian fanatics who hated him so viscerally.

As head of the strongest party, he became president, or rather first among equals in the collective presidency. Of all the heads of state in the six republics of former Yugoslavia, Izetbegovic uniquely had been a lifelong anti-communist. All the other leaders had been senior apparatchiks in the communist regime, although Tudjman swapped his communism for nationalism at the end of the 1960s.

By the summer of 1991 war was raging, first in Slovenia, then much more seriously in Croatia. In a vain attempt to avert the looming bloodbath, Izetbegovic backed a new, looser structure for Yugoslavia, and sought to sweet-talk the (Serb) Yugoslav army, with its considerable stockpiles of arms and garrisons in Bosnia, into reason. But he did little to prepare his people for what was about to befall them.

When Western Europe bowed to German pressure and recognised Croatia's independence in 1992, the Bosnian die was cast. Izetbegovic was forced to decide whether to request international recognition, too, or opt to remain as an appendage of a Greater Serbia run by the Milosevic regime in Belgrade. The choice between following Tudjman or running with Milosevic, both of whom were scheming in secret to carve up Bosnia between them, was like having to choose between leukaemia and a brain tumour, he once memorably remarked.

Following an independence plebiscite, European recognition of a state called Bosnia-Herzegovina came on April 5th, 1992, and the Serbs launched their partitionist war the next day. The Serbs instituted the Sarajevo siege, and Izetbegovic looked to the wider Muslim world for financial support and hundreds of troops.

There followed long weeks bunkered in the Sarajevo presidency where Izetbegovic veered between panic and other-worldly serenity, punctuated by endless negotiating sessions in Geneva, Vienna, London and Ohio, culminating in the Dayton deal in 1995.

He often seemed a lonely old man. Throughout the terrible waves of ethnic cleansing in what was primarily a war against civilians, Izetbegovic alone among the rival leaders retained a moral stature.

"Those who have bloodied their hands cannot be forgiven," he said. "But the only ones who are to be forgiven regardless of everything are the women and children. Let us not be an army that does what they are doing to us. Let us never fight against women and children. We will never win if we do."

The Serb and Croat leaders hated him for that kind of talk. In the propaganda of both regimes, Izetbegovic was a closet ayatollah, scheming to establish an Islamic theocracy.

Izetbegovic was born in the north Bosnian town of Bosanski Samac and moved as a child to Sarajevo, where he spent the second World War. Just after the war, as Tito's communists tightened their grip on Yugoslavia, he was jailed for three years for religious agitation. He later studied law at Sarajevo university and worked as a legal consultant to Bosnian firms.

In 1970 he published his Islamic Declaration, a tract that says Islam is incompatible with non-Islamic systems and calls for Islamic religious and political revolution. The book became the basis for the well-funded Serb and Croat campaigns to label Izetbegovic a fundamentalist.

In 1982, with Bosnia under hardline communist rule, Izetbegovic got a 14-year term for his publication Islam Between East And West, an attempt to define the curious status of Bosnia's Muslims, a population of semi-westernised Balkan Slavs. He served five years in Foca, south-east of Sarajevo, where Serbs massacred Muslims during the second World War and again in 1992.

He emerged from jail to a Yugoslavia in its death throes, a process set in train the previous year by the arrival in power of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.

With the bigger and more powerful Serbian and Croatian nationalist rulers bent on helping themselves to Bosnia and confining the Muslims to the status of second-class citizens, the odds were stacked against Izetbegovic.

In the end, he, too, ended up a nationalist leader, agreeing in mid-1993 to the division of Bosnia along ethnic lines. And, embittered by the ferocity of the assault on Bosnia's Muslims and what he perceived as their betrayal by the West, he eschewed all claim to multi-ethnic leadership.

However, above all, Izetbegovic, branded a fundamentalist by his enemies, but who embodied the wish to live and let live more than those enemies ever did, leaves behind a country partitioned and destroyed by the real fundamentalists, the Serb and Croat leaderships, in the worst barbarity seen in Europe since the Nazis.

He is survived by his wife, Halida, and three children, Sabina, Lejla and Bakir.

Alija Izetbegovic: politician, born August 8th, 1925; died October 19th, 2003