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Fikret Abdic is welcomed by supporters after serving his sentence and leaving a prison in the northern Adriatic Croatian town of Pula in March 2012.

After serving time in a Croatian prison for war crimes he committed during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Fikret Abdic has returned to the scene of those crimes and is running for mayor. (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

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.

Abdic and Agrokomerc became the center of a corruption scandal and a lengthy and highly publicized court case in 1987.
Abdic and Agrokomerc became the center of a corruption scandal and a lengthy and highly publicized court case in 1987.

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.

Milorad Dodik currently seems prepared to use all means that he considers legitimate to achieve Serbia's wartime goals.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik started his career as an enthusiastic supporter of the Dayton peace agreement and of a unified Bosnia. Now he is the biggest threat to peace. (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

"A final report card on Dayton is not yet possible," Richard Holbrooke wrote in his book To End A War, published in 1998. He passed away before he could see the peace agreement of which he was so proud being misused to keep the ghosts of war alive in Bosnia.

The political system enshrined by Dayton encourages each group, Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats, to choose its representatives based on ethnicity, thus perpetuating wartime divisions. Moreover, nationalist party leaders exploit the fear of a new conflict to further cement their hold on power in both entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat federation. Politicians in Bosnia are not judged on the basis of their economic or social policies. Demonizing the other ethnic group(s) is the simplest and surest way of winning elections. Ethnic populism reigns unchallenged in Bosnia.

Yet Dayton's reification of ethnic division as the foundation of politics was not always put into practice. The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, started his career as an enthusiastic supporter of the peace agreement and of a unified Bosnia. Holbrooke was full of praise for Dodik in his book:

"In all three ethnic groups, the men who started the war in 1991-92 were still in power as late as spring 1998. They have to disappear to make way for a new generation of leaders willing to reach out to one another as prime minister Dodik of Republika Srpska has begun to do. If more leaders like Dodik appeared, and survived, then the original Dayton design could work."

Holbrooke was right at the time -- during the war Dodik led a group of independent legislators in the parliament of what was then the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska. He was an opponent of Radovan Karadzic, the chief instigator of the conflict. During his visit to the United States in 2007, Madeline Albright described him as a "breath of fresh air." He was the EU's darling as well. The late British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, praised Dodik in front of the Republika Srpska's National Assembly. He said that Dodik's government had done more in its first two weeks to improve the lives of the people than its predecessor had done in two years.

How has Dodik the peacemaker become the biggest threat to peace in Bosnia?

The winds blowing from Sarajevo in the aftermath of the war were not always favorable to reconciliation. Many at the top, including Haris Silajdzic, a close associate of the late Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, were calling for the abolition of Republika Srpska. Silajdzic referred to it as "the genocidal entity." Some of this was understandable resentment over the fact that Dayton had effectively legitimized the reality created on the ground by ethnic cleansing. Yet the frosty attitude did nothing to discourage Banja Luka from looking to Belgrade.

Closer relations between Serbia and Republika Srpska followed. In May 2008, Dodik and former Serbian President Boris Tadic opened a Republika Srpska Park in Belgrade. Dodik then used police reform to create a nationalist profile for himself. Belgrade Television became the major platform for his political speeches. He welcomed back former Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic after her release from prison, having served her sentence for war crimes, and even sent an official jet to pick her up.

A year ago he went to Srebrenica, seemingly to pay tribute to the victims of genocide. Yet the very next day he called it "a massacre," and promised to establish "an international commission" to find out "what really happened in Srebrenica." He thus sought to overwrite The Hague tribunal and EU declarations on the Srebrenica genocide.

In 2011, Dodik proposed a referendum on whether to reject Bosnia's state war crimes court and the special prosecutor's office established in 2005 by international decree. It was seen as a highly risky move, and after a series of failed diplomatic efforts to stop the referendum, Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign-policy chief at the time, rushed to see Dodik in Banja Luka and promised a reform of the Bosnian judiciary. Dodik already saw himself as the head of a mini-state, a feeling further encouraged when a high-ranking EU official went directly to his Banja Luka headquarters, bypassing the capital, Sarajevo -- although he ultimately relented on his proposed referendum. Yet the course was set. In his regular reports to the UN Security Council, Valentin Inzko, the high representative in Bosnia, frequently mentioned Dodik as the most persistent -- albeit not the only -- proponent of Bosnian state dissolution.

Although he did back down in 2011, after having his ego boosted by EU officials, Dodik was not done with referendums. A new one planned for September 25 has raised tensions in Bosnia to a fever pitch, and threatens to split the country. It is ostensibly a plebiscite on Republika Srpska's Statehood Day, but is seen by many as the thin edge of the wedge. It seeks to officially celebrate the birth not of post-Dayton Republika Srpska, but rather Karadzic's prewar creation that helped bring about the Bosnian conflict.

Dodik currently seems prepared to use all means that he considers legitimate to achieve Serbia's wartime goals. If Holbrooke were still around, he would probably ask for an urgent conference on Bosnia and a revision of Dayton. Even in 1998 he expressed some regrets. One of them was keeping the name Republika Srpska. "It was wrong to permit Karadzic to keep the name he had invented," he wrote in his book.

Commenting on Dodik's new referendum, former Croatian President Stipe Mesic called Dodik the new Slobodan Milosevic.

Mesic is right. Like Milosevic, Dodik is probably not as ideologically committed to Serbian nationalism as he is trying to appear. He may be more of an opportunist. When the international community was more closely involved in Bosnia -- in the years immediately after the war -- Dodik determined that it was profitable to support a unified state. As the world has gradually disengaged from Bosnia, nationalist rhetoric became key to political survival once again. This is partly the legacy of Dayton, the establishment of a country in which people exercise their rights, and their political will, as members of one of three ethnic groups, rather than as Bosnian citizens.

Bosnia deserves better than a flawed peace treaty as its constitution, and it deserves to move on. It is not possible without EU and U.S. assistance.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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