The former Yugoslavia – independence and the fate of minorities – part five

TransConflict is pleased to present the fifth part of a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled “Independence and the Fate of Minorities (1991-1992).”

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Conflict Background


By Gale Stokes

A telling argument against the view that Izetbegović sought to create an Islamic republic is that when such an opportunity presented itself, he did not take it. As Steven L. Burg and Paul Shoup point out, the most critical prewar moments came in the year 1990, when the Croatian and Slovenian republican governments took the position that Yugoslavia should be a confederal union of sovereign states, in other words, when those two states presented an option that only independence would satisfy. This put Bosnia on the spot with what appeared to be two choices: either opt for letting those two countries go and staying in a Yugoslavia that would be dominated by Serbia, or for creating an independent state consisting of three increasingly divided ethnic groups. Izetbegović characterized this choice as one between leukemia and a brain tumor.[33] The first option was unacceptable to much of the non-Serbian population of Bosnia, but not to some Bosnian leaders. In June 1991, Adil Zulfikarpašić and Muhamed Filipović negotiated an agreement with Radovan Karadžić and other Bosnian Serb leaders to keep Bosnia a sovereign and undivided state encompassing three constituent peoples. For this to happen, Bosnia would have to stay in a newly federated Yugoslavia. According to Zulfikarpašić, Milošević agreed to this plan, which also would have given Bosnia 60 percent of Sandžak and autonomy to the rest of that region.[34] Such a federal arrangement might have had significant longterm value for Yugoslav Muslims. Even though a newly federated Yugoslavia might be dominated by Serbs, it would nevertheless include in its various regions essentially all the Muslims living in Yugoslavia, encompassing those in Kosovo, Macedonia, Sandžak, and Montenegro, as well as in Bosnia. “Eventually,” as Burg and Shoup put it, “the Muslims would have become a political force to be reckoned with in the new Yugoslavia.”[35] This would have been especially true if Izetbegović had seen himself in a similar way as the Serb and Croat leaders saw themselves, as a charismatic leader. But this is not how he thought of himself. Izetbegović considered himself a Bosnian and did not consider seriously the possibility of creating a larger Muslim entity. He feared that becoming a part of a Yugoslavia in which Milošević was the strongman would leave Bosnians secondclass citizens and worried that the Croatian portions of Hercegovina, which had been part of the Croatian regional government (banovina) created by the royal Yugoslav government in 1939, would secede from Bosnia and join Croatia. The Croats confirmed this suspicion by reacting vigorously against Zulfikarpašić’s proposal, which they argued constituted a secret deal of two peoples, the Serbs and Muslims, against the third, the Croats. Izetbegović refused to consider the possibility of a Bosnia without Croats.

Contributing to Izetbegović’s lack of interest in a project that would have the prospect of creating a Muslim entity in a rump Yugoslavia may have been his contacts with Albanian nationalists in prison. The Kosovars he met there proved to be entirely secular. “Religion has been superseded and is unnecessary for our people and its struggle for freedom,” one of their leaders told him. Izetbegović found this lack of interest in Islam unacceptable, although, as he puts it, “we remained good friends.” [36] In any event, Izetbegović insisted on maintaining Bosnia as a multinational state, even though he recognized that this meant Bosnia might have to declare its independence, which could well mean war. All the evidence suggests that he did not even consider the possibility of creating a powerful Muslim entity in a restructured Yugoslavia.[37]

One of the comments often made about Izetbegović’s political leadership was that he was indecisive, ready to be swayed by whoever provided the most recent argument. Notes From Prison suggests that the reason for this may be that he was too thoughtful to be a dynamic leader. This is not something that can be said about his main antagonists, Radovan Karadžić, Slobodan Milošević, and Franjo Tudjman, leaders who were never restrained by introspection. In the Bosnian elections of 1990, won by the three parties that most strongly represented the three main national groups, Karadžić, a Sarajevo psychiatrist and sometime poet, emerged as the leader of the Bosnian Serbs. As former American ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman put it, Karadžić was “the polar opposite to Izetbegović.”[38] Whereas Zimmerman considered Izetbegović a moderate and even charitable man, he characterizes Karadžić as a confrontational individual whose “single-mindedness in pursuit of the most radical Serbian agenda was matched by his deep-seated hostility, amounting to racism, toward Muslims, Croats, and any other non-Serbian ethnic group.”[39] Although he had not been particularly well known as a nationalist up until the late 1980s, he apparently had always tended toward violent ideas. In a 1992 film, for example, he “recounted how more than two decades ago he had written a poem beginning: “I can hear disaster walking. The city is burning…Everything I saw in terms of a fight, in terms of war, in army terms.”40 “Today [Serbs] cannot live with other nations,” Karadžić told Warren Zimmerman in 1992 as the war in Bosnia was beginning. “They must have their own separate existence. They are a warrior race and they can trust only themselves to take by force what is their due.”[41] In contrast to Gligorov’s and Izetbegović’s efforts to find a solution, Karadžić and his party began to undermine the fragile structure of the Bosnian state. During 1991 they created three “Serb Autonomous Regions,” began arming themselves by Serbianizing elements of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) in Bosnia, particularly the locally based territorial defense units, and created their own legislature.

‘Independence and the fate of minorities’ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.


33) As reported by Jasminka Udovički and Ejub Štitkovac, “Bosnia and Hercegovina: The Second War,” in Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia, ed. Jasminka Udovički and James Ridgeway (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 175-76. This book is a revised and expanded edition of Yugoslavia’s Ethnic Nightmare (1995) by the same editors.

34) Udovički and Štitkovac, “Bosnia and Hercegovina,” 204n6

35) Burg and Shoup, The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 72.

36) Izetbegović, Sjećanja, 58.

37) Ibid., 96-100.

38) Warren Zimmerman, Origins of a Catastrophe (New York: Times Books, 1999), 174.

39) Ibid., 175. “In his fanaticism,” Zimmerman wrote, “he invites comparison with a monster from another generation, Heinrich Himmler.”

40) Tim Judah, The Serbs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 43.

41) Zimmerman, Origins of a Catastrophe, 203.

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