Accessibility links

Breaking News

Bosnia-Herzegovina: Muslim Leader Izetbegovic Dies

Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia-Herzegovina's wartime president, has died aged 78. Izetbegovic died in a Sarajevo hospital from complications sustained from falling down in his home last month. He was later admitted to the hospital's cardiac unit.

Prague, 20 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's wartime president and a signatory to the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, has died at age 78.

Izetbegovic died yesterday in a Sarajevo hospital from complications sustained from falling down in his home last month. He was later admitted to the hospital's cardiac unit.

Izetbegovic, who retired from active politics in 2000, said his greatest success as president was that he had prevented Bosnia from becoming "part of a Greater Serbia." His greatest failure, he said, was that he had not fulfilled the dream of establishing a united, democratic, and prosperous Bosnia.

He may have failed in that, but he will always be remembered as a man who, against all odds, helped Bosnia survive three years of brutal interethnic strife.

Izetbegovic was born in 1925 to a well-off Bosnian-Muslim family in the town of Bosanski Samac. He studied law in Sarajevo.

As a young man, he identified himself with an Islamist group, the "Young Muslims," that was sometimes branded as being hard-line. Yugoslavia's totalitarian regime sent him to prison twice for "pan-Islamic activities" -- the first time in the late 1940s and then again in 1983.

A deeply religious man, Izetbegovic had sometimes been accused of having fundamentalist tendencies, but in his public discourse he sought to reconcile Islam with the European character of Bosnia's Muslim society.

It was in 1990 that Izetbegovic first left his mark on Bosnian politics as the leader of a new Bosnian-Muslim party -- the Party of Democratic Action (SDA).

In the country's first multiparty elections that same year, nationalist parties ousted the communists. The SDA formed a coalition government with the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Izetbegovic was elected Bosnia's president.

The following year Yugoslavia disintegrated amid an upsurge of nationalism and brutal fighting. Izetbegovic was one of the few leaders in the former Yugoslavia who could not be accused of instigating interethnic hatred.

On 3 March 1992, following a referendum, Izetbegovic proclaimed Bosnia's independence. Bosnia's Serbs -- who boycotted the referendum -- rebelled and an armed struggle began for control of the country.

As war became imminent, Izetbegovic spoke to Lord Carrington, the European Community's envoy.

As Izetbegovic said, "[Lord Carrington asked,] 'Well, what are you going to do?' I said we would fight. Then, Carrington stood silent for a moment, looked me right in the eye and asked, 'How do you think you could fight?' I said, 'We don't have a choice. Either we fight or we surrender. If we surrender, we will be slaughtered.'"

The atrocities of the Bosnian war took place amid the indecision and wavering of international diplomacy. Izetbegovic, who had to acquiesce to one international peace plan after another, felt the international community had let him, and his people, down.

Nowhere was that letdown more tragic than at the UN-protected zone of Srebrenica, where in 1995 Bosnian-Serb forces slaughtered some 7,000 Muslims. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Izetbegovic later spoke about Srebrenica.

"Srebrenica was a UN-protected area and we did believe that the UN would protect it. According to the UN Charter, if a UN-protected zone had been attacked, the UN has to defend it militarily. We could not imagine that the UN would accept such a violation of its own charter without doing anything. We thought the world would prevent the invasion of Srebrenica but we failed. We miscalculated; Srebrenica was betrayed by the world," Izetbegovic said.

At the end of 1995, in the U.S. city of Dayton, Ohio, Izetbegovic, together with Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, signed an accord that brought hostilities to an end. The war that Izetbegovic initially believed could never happen had taken between 150,000 and 200,000 lives.

The next year, Izetbegovic was re-elected president of the three-man collective presidency of Bosnia.

During the later years of his presidency, Izetbegovic was dogged by allegations of corruption and embezzlement among officials from all three nationalist parties. Izetbegovic did not deny that corruption existed but denied the scale of the alleged fraud.

In June 2000, he announced he would retire from politics due to poor health.

In his political life, Izetbegovic made decisions that were variously interpreted -- but he always insisted he acted in Bosnia's best interests. Or, as he said at the inaugural session of the Bosnian parliament in 1996: "There are no bad people, there are only bad leaders. Those who are responsible for the tragedy of Bosnia will have to answer for that, sooner of later, both in front of God and the people. Nobody will be able to avoid that responsibility."

(RFE/RL's Nenad Pejic contributed to this feature.)