Babo the godfather tycoon offers ray of hope to Balkans

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The Independent Online
LOCAL people call him 'Babo', an affectionate term for father. But Fikret Abdic is really more of a godfather: revered provincial chieftain, astute political intriguer and dubious business tycoon rolled into one.

Mr Abdic, 53, who is leading a revolt in the Bihac region of north- western Bosnia against the Sarajevo-based government of President Alija Izetbegovic, personifies the Byzantine complexities of the Yugoslav wars. He is a Muslim and proud of it, but he has sold arms, fuel and food to Serbs and also gets on well with Croatia's authorities.

His Serbian and Croatian connections do not stop many Bihac Muslims from adoring him. After he proclaimed the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia on 27 September, thousands flocked to his support, defying the Sarajevo authorities. Mr Abdic thinks Mr Izetbegovic is a disastrous leader, obsessed with 'the mad idea of an 'Alija state' in the heart of Europe'. His own views are simple: 'Let's cut deals. It's better than fighting.'

At least 50 people have died in three weeks of clashes between the Bosnian army's Fifth Corps and pro-Abdic forces. But Mr Abdic still controls his power base, the town of Velika Kladusa, of which he once said: 'What Tito is to Yugoslavia, I am to Velika Kladusa.'

Mr Izetbegovic is outraged, as Mr Abdic's success implies that a solution to the Bosnian imbroglio need not mean rebuilding a united Bosnia-Herzegovina in its pre-war borders. That in turn undermines the case for Western action in support of the Sarajevo government, either in the form of armed intervention or by lifting the arms embargo.

The French United Nations contingent in the Bihac area has, in fact, quietly supported Mr Abdic in recent months. French trucks have escorted his company's convoys of food and consumer goods into the region. Commanders say it is no secret that he siphons off some profits, but that he nevertheless contributes to Bihac's relative stability.

Mr Abdic says he reinvests his money in Bihac's economy which, conveniently, depends on his company, Agrokomerc. He also makes the point that Bihac is famous for its ethnic harmony, which survived the civil war of the 1940s, and says he is reinforcing that tradition.

Mr Abdic was a high-ranking Bosnian Communist in the 1980s, but his instincts were more those of a slippery Balkan merchant than an intolerant ideologue. He brought prosperity to Bihac with his dynamic and, some say, corrupt management of Agrokomerc, Yugoslavia's biggest state food company.

In 1987 he was accused of issuing dollars 1bn ( pounds 667m) in unsecured promissory notes, and he spent almost two years in prison before being acquitted. His defence included the assertion, probably accurate, that other Yugoslav firms were up to the same trick. Having regained his liberty, Mr Abdic won more votes than Mr Izetbegovic in the 1990 election for Bosnia's collective presidency.

His career illustrates the difficulties Westerners face in trying to make sense of the Balkans. He is the only politician to retain support among Muslims, Serbs and Croats alike. For that reason, he may be a ray of light in an otherwise ever- darkening Bosnia.