Obituary: Nikola Koljevic

The eventful career and violent death of Nikola Koljevic, one of the deputy leaders of the Bosnian Serb nationalists during the Bosnian war, would have provided rich source material for Nikola Koljevic the Shakespeare scholar. His life came to an end in a Belgrade hospital a week after he had shot himself in the head; he had reportedly been suffering from depression following the near- complete loss of his political positions and influence.

Koljevic was introduced to the politics of ultra-nationalism and ethnic cleansing at the age of five, in April 1941, when Hitler's troops in Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Hercegovina came under the control of Croatia's pro-Nazi Ustasa authorities. His father, a prosperous businessman in the north-western town of Banja Luka, was among the large number of Serbs arrested. On his release he fled with his family to Belgrade, where they stayed until the end of the Second World War.

After finishing his schooling in Banja Luka Koljevic read English in Belgrade. He went on to complete his doctoral thesis on the mainly American school of textual criticism of the 1930s and beyond which was published in Serbo-Croat as The Theoretical Foundations of the New Criticism (1966). It became a standard textbook at Yugoslav universities. He published several other books, including Shakespeare the Tragic Writer (1982), and was a respected academic at the University of Sarajevo throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Koljevic was an urbane intellectual, a jovial and sociable figure who showed few outward signs that he would one day commit himself to the cause of ethnic separatism pursued through violent means. But there was another side to him which came to the fore following the death of his eldest son, Djordje, in a skiing accident in Austria in 1975. Devastated, Koljevic found solace in a deeper involvement in the Orthodox faith, which in turn contributed to his interest in the revival of the Serbs' national cultural heritage, in line with the traditional links between the Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbian nationhood.

Yet many of Koljevic's closest friends were surprised when he wholeheartedly embraced the politics of Serbian nationalism in 1990. In Bosnia's first post-Communist elections he was elected, along with the hard-line nationalist Biljana Plavsic, one of the two Serbian members of Bosnia's multi-ethnic collective presidency. During 1991, as Yugoslavia was disintegrating and war raged in Croatia, the divisions within Bosnia hardened between the Muslims and Croats, most of whom favoured independence from Yugoslavia, and the Bosnian Serbs who wanted to stay in one state with their fellow Serbs in the other Yugoslav republics to create a greater Serbia.

Then, in spring 1992, as the separatist Bosnian Serb leadership was preparing to launch a military onslaught on the newly independent and internationally recognised Bosnian state, Koljevic joined in the setting-up of a capital for the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb Republic - known as Republika Srpska - in Pale, the mountain resort on the outskirts of Sarajevo.

During the war he became the publicly acceptable, relatively moderate face around the world of the four-member leadership that consisted of Radovan Karadjic as President, Plavsic and Koljevic as his two deputies, and Momeilo Krajisnik, Speaker of the Bosnian Serb Assembly. Unlike his three colleagues, he made few of the insulting remarks about the Muslims that was one of the trademarks of the Pale leadership, and did not dismiss out of hand the peace plans drawn up by international negotiators.

But there were no signs that Koljevic harboured any doubts about the methods used by his side and he made no attempt to dissociate himself from the policies of ethnic cleansing or the bombardment of Sarajevo - even though his brother Svetozar, a well-known professor at the university, spent several months in the besieged city before he managed to escape to Serbia. Moreover his remarks often betrayed a high level of insensitivity towards his wartime enemies. On his first visit to Sarajevo after the end of the war, in March 1996, he professed surprise at what he considered the relatively limited amount of damage caused by the shelling from his side.

By then his political career was coming to an end. In the immediate aftermath of the Dayton peace agreement - which Koljevic signed on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs in Paris in December 1995 - the Western powers expected that he would replace Karadzic who, following his indictment by the Hague war crimes tribunal, was barred from office. Moreover, unlike the rest of the Bosnian Serb leadership, Koljevic had stayed on good terms with Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, the regional power broker.

This turned out to be wishful thinking. Koljevic was always something of a political lightweight in the Bosnian Serb hierarchy and his hard- line rivals had no problems in edging him out of office. Following Bosnia's post-war elections, Plavsic emerged as the President of the Serbian Republic with Bosnia and Krajisnik became the Serbs' representative on Bosnia's collective presidency. Ironically, the relatively pragmatic Koljevic was left with no role to play on Bosnia's post-war political stage while two of the most die-hard exponents of Bosnian Serb separatism were entrusted with trying to find an accommodation with their former Muslim and Croat enemies within the new partially reunited Bosnia.

That irony was not lost on Koljevic himself. Disappointed in his expectations and reduced from Vice-President to the rank of a political adviser, he felt uncertain about his future, not knowing whether to stay on in the provincial obscurity of Pale, join his family in Belgrade or return to his place of birth in Banja Luka. His suicide ended these doubts.

Gabriel Partos

Nikola Koljevic, politician and English scholar: born Banja Luka, Yugoslavia 9 June 1936; Professor of Literature, University of Sarajevo 1965-92; Vice-President, Republika Srpska, 1992-96; married 1957 Milica Medic (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Belgrade 25 January 1997.

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