Izetbegovic Remembered

Late Bosnian president admired by many Muslims but will not be mourned by Serbs.

Izetbegovic Remembered

Late Bosnian president admired by many Muslims but will not be mourned by Serbs.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Alija Izetbegovic, the man many considered the father of the Bosnian state, died on October 19, bequeathing a mixed legacy.


Admired by many Bosnian Muslims for stubbornly defending their right to independence, he was seen as a divisive force by the republic's Serbs and Croats, many of whom viewed him as a dangerous religious zealot.


Many international statesmen and diplomats recalled a man of quiet dignity who was easier to deal with than the leaders of Serbia or Croatia. But his post-war policies were often unpopular at home, where he was accused of presiding over cronyism and corruption in the party that he led.


The first president of Bosnia and Herzegovina died on October 19 due to heart failure and complications resulting from injuries he sustained after a fall five weeks ago. He was 78.


After 13 years on the political stage, he left behind a democratic multi-party system, though one that is still recovering from the wounds inflicted by the war that ravaged the country for more than three years.


Izetbegovic was born in 1925 in the northern town of Bosanski Samac and became an active member of a Muslim youth movement at 15. Hostile to the communist takeover in 1945 and the ideas of Yugoslavia's new leader, Josip Broz Tito, he continued his activism and in 1946 earned the first of two prison sentences.


A legal adviser by profession, he was imprisoned again in 1983 for disseminating Islamic propaganda, a sentence that partly reflected strong official disapproval of his 1970 work, "The Islamic Declaration", which was about the relationship between Islam and the state in Muslim countries.


After decades of relative obscurity, Izetbegovic emerged as a public figure during the collapse of Yugoslavia. In 1990 his Muslim-dominated Party of Democratic Action, SDA, emerged as the largest single party from the first multi-party elections held in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then still a Yugoslav republic.


Yet Izetbegovic seemed ill-prepared for the role of national leader in the fragile, multi-ethnic republic. He had no previous experience of public office, which put him at a disadvantage in negotiations with the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic or with Franjo Tudjman of Croatia who - whatever their own disagreements - were united in wishing to carve Bosnia up.


Izetbegovic initially supported further decentralisation of power to the republics as the solution to Yugoslavia's mounting political crisis in the early 1990s.


When it became clear that Slovenia and Croatia were going to secede, he insisted on an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, reasoning that for Bosnia to stay in what remained of Yugoslavia would condemn it to permanent domination by Serbia.


A referendum in spring 1992 decided in favour of secession and opened the way to Bosnia's international recognition as an independent state. But lingering hopes of a peaceful exit from Yugoslavia turned to dust when armed Serbs and Croats, with military aid from the two neighbouring states, rose up and overran most of the new republic's territory.


Despite Bosnia's new status, Bosnian Serb and Croat leaders accused Izetbegovic and the SDA of aiming to establish an Islamic state, recalling the two prison terms he served for Muslim activism in the communist era.


In reality, Izetbegovic did not attempt to apply an Islamic model to Bosnia and, both within the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and as leader of the SDA, sought to work with parties representing the other two main ethnic groups in the country.


As leader in a war where the odds were stacked against him, Izetbegovic maintained a dignity and composure under shellfire in his sandbagged office that impressed foreign statesmen and diplomats. He also retained the support of some Serbs and Croats who backed his vision of a multi-ethnic republic.


But as the war progressed, secular Muslims as well as Serbs and Croats increasingly complained that the government was squandering its reputation for tolerance. Many were dismayed at the growing links Izetbegovic forged with undemocratic Arab states, and at the encouragement he gave to foreign Islamic fighters to join the Bosnian war.


Izetbegovic did not hide his disappointment over the terms of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended the war by granting the Serbs a state-within-a-state comprising just under half the republic's territory. The republic was effectively divided into two entities, the Federation and Republika Srpska.


Izetbegovic remained head of Bosnia's collective presidency after the war, withdrawing from the public eye only in 2000. He cited ill health, though his departure also reflected pressure from the European Union for all of Bosnia's compromised wartime leaders to leave the political stage.


When the SDA returned to power in 2002, Izetbegovic remained influential through his post as honorary party chairman. However, both the party and Izetbegovic were widely blamed for corruption which wasted much of the international financial aid earmarked for Bosnia's post-war reconstruction.


The SDA was also weakened by internal squabbles that may threaten its future as a major political force now that Izetbegovic is gone.


Izetbegovic's divisive record was reflected in the very different reactions to his death among Bosnian Muslims and Serbs.


The media in the Federation was full of praise for his life and actions. The weekly magazine Dani said his influence among his countrymen was "unquestionable", while the Sarajevo daily newspaper Dnevni Avaz said Bosnia owned its very survival as an idea and as a country to Izetbegovic.


The reaction on the streets of Sarajevo was much the same. "With him, we created our country, army and our politicians, whatever they may be like now," said Jasmin Odobasic. "He is the man who made and defended Bosnia."


But in Republika Srpska, news of Izetbegovic's death was all but ignored. While radio and TV in the Federation marked the event with solemn classical music and films commemorating his life, the Serb media barely marked the event.


Echoing the enmity felt by many Serbs to a man they held partly responsible for the destruction of Yugoslavia, Milorad Dodik, leader of the Bosnian Serb Social Democrats, expressed regret that Izetbegovic never stood trial before the Hague war crimes tribunal.


It was a sentiment shared by many Bosnian Croats, who felt the international community paid insufficient attention to crimes which Izetbegovic's mainly Muslim army committed against civilians during the conflict.


In fact, Izetbegovic was considered a suspect and was under investigation, Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for Hague prosecutors, said on October 22. "But the fact that he died means all proceedings stopped."


Nerma Jelacic is IWPR project manager in Bosnia.


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