Fikret Abdic is back.
After serving two-thirds of a 15-year sentence in a Croatian prison for war crimes he was convicted of committing during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Abdic has returned to the scene of those crimes. He is running for mayor of Velika Kladusa in an October 2 election.
Abdic remains a brand name in this region in Bosnia's extreme northwestern corner: He was a controversial socialist businessman before the war. In 1990, he was briefly elected a member of the Bosnian Presidency. During the war, he was a collaborator of both Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.
Now Abdic, who will be 77 when the election is held, is trying to make the jump from prison cell to political office. His daughter Elvira Abdic-Jelenovic, meanwhile, is running for a post in the Velika Kladusa municipal government.
Abdic was born in 1939 in what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. During the communist period, he made his reputation during the 1970s and 1980s running an extremely successful food conglomerate called Agrokomerc. The company was the engine of the entire region's economy at that time.
Agrokomerc's success was partly due to the patronage of high-ranking Bosnian politician Hamdija Pozderac. That connection contributed to Abdic's rise -- but it was also the cause of his downfall. When Milosevic wanted to change Yugoslavia's constitution and strip the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina of their autonomy, Pozderac opposed him.
Abdic and Agrokomerc became the center of a corruption scandal and a lengthy and highly publicized court case in 1987. Abdic was accused of "undermining the economic system of Yugoslavia." Both he and Pozderac were the target of relentless media attacks. Pozderac was forced to resign and died in 1988.
Many still believe the entire case was politically motivated, engineered by Milosevic supporters to bring down Pozderac by targeting his protégé, Abdic. Milosevic subsequently changed the constitution, and Kosovo and Vojvodina were both declared integral parts of Serbia.
In 1993, with war raging across Bosnia, Abdic made a bid to carve out his own fiefdom by proclaiming the Velika Kladusa region's autonomy. He entered into an alliance with Croatian President Tudjman, only to later turn against the Croats and make a deal with what was left of the Yugoslav Army.
In his last act of the war, he turned his forces against the Bosnian Army. Although himself a Bosniak, Abdic accepted arms and ammunition from Belgrade to wage war against the Bosnian Army's 5th Corps. A tragic civil war -- a war within a war -- ensued in the Bihac pocket. Many families in Velika Kladusa had one son in Abdic's armed units and another serving with the Bosnian Army.
Abdic was later convicted of running detention centers in which at least 5,000 of his opponents were imprisoned, and many of them tortured.
Reopening Old Wounds
Nonetheless, there are no legal obstacles to prevent him from running for mayor now.
Rifat Dolic, a former close associate of Abdic's and leader of the Democratic People's Alliance, is concerned that Abdic's election will reopen war wounds.
"If someone with so much baggage related to the war -- and so clearly arrogant, vain, and prone to intrigue -- is running for local office and at the same time wants his daughter in the same municipal office, I can only feel sorry for him and his supporters," Dolic told RFE/RL in Sarajevo.
"[Abdic] belongs to the past -- and what kind of past that is is a matter of opinion," Dolic concluded.
Dolic still has great respect for Abdic's achievements in running Agrokomerc. And nostalgia for that time of prosperity and rapid development is the dominant emotion among Abdic's supporters. However, many cannot forget his actions during the war, his opportunism, or his divisiveness.
"If elected, Abdic will make the divisions among people in this region deeper," Dolic said. "He will push our municipality toward isolation. We will become like a medieval township."
"We seem to have a special moral code here in Bosnia -- one ethnic group's heroes are another's war criminals," analyst Ivana Maric told RFE/RL in an interview. "Our system of values is broken."
Ramo Hindic, a local expert and publicist, also suggested Abdic's run could reignite tension. "The most painful thing here in Kladusa is that our wartime wounds have yet to heal completely. Every now and then someone picks at them, adds salt," he said.
"The process of reconciliation, which was a local initiative coordinated through civic associations, has made some progress, and we were on the point of signing a memorandum on mutual understanding and reconciliation. However, all that has been put on hold now, or has come to a halt."
Sarajevo professor Esad Bajtal is not surprised by Abdic's candidacy -- and won't be surprised if he wins. Bajtal said that the old Agrokomerc boss always had his supporters in Velika Kladusa, and while he may not be to everyone's taste, given his controversial background, Abdic has the law on his side.
But while that may be Bosnia's current reality, he said, it has to change. "In order to avoid these situations in the future, the state has to take the appropriate legislative steps and clear up all political, moral, and other concerns raised by Abdic's candidacy," Bajtal said.
His remarks suggest that Bosnia should have a law against convicted war criminals running for public office -- or its bloody recent past will continue to haunt the country's politics.