The Balkan bogeyman with too few friends

PROFILE: Alija Izetbegovic; Bosnia's President has had a good week. But what future can he promise his people asks Emma Daly
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The Independent Online
"Alija" is a dirty word in much of the former Yugoslavia, shorthand for the non-existent Barbarian hordes of Muslim fanatics that nationalist Serbs and Croats claim to be valiantly holding at bay from Europe. The hatred for the Bosnian President, though, comes not from his desire for a pure Islamic state, but for his attempts to maintain some kind of ethnic and national mix in Bosnia.

"He has enemies who detest him (Serbs) and friends who despise him (Croats)," said one liberal Serb observer wearily. And while this has clearly been the best week for Mr Izetbegovic since the war began, the feel-good factor will fade fast. "The world has finally done what it should have done long ago," Mr Izetbegovic said this week. "All the citizens of Bosnia Herzegovina need peace." True, but how many of them will, if peace comes, remain citizens of Bosnia?

In war, the President has proved his courage and perhaps his Balkan stubbornness. One memorable morning this summer, as the hills around Sarajevo shuddered to the thunder of artillery, Mr Izetbegovic was seen strolling to work, accompanied unhappily by bodyguards who pleaded with their boss to get into his car. He refused; he had planned to walk. It was a lovely morning and walk he would.

Several weeks later, he demanded and won a temporary amendment to the constitution guaranteeing a Muslim successor in the event of his death during wartime. It sparked a furious argument with the prime minister, Haris Silajdzic, who threatened to resign but was dissuaded by Mr Izetbegovic, who, as befits the tangled web of Balkan politics, is perceived to be a political enemy of his prime minister.

Mr Izetbegovic, who has been active in Muslim organisations since his youth, was born in northern Bosnia 70 years ago; his birthplace has been deliberately shrouded in mystery during wartime apparently to hamper possible rebel propaganda - but appears to be in Serb-held territory.

He spent nine years in prison, arrested twice - once in the late 1940s, once in the early 1980s - by the Communist government for alleged pan- Islamic activities. "His image in Sarajevo is very positive - that of an honest, truthful and kind old man - but that sometimes belies his cunning and shrewdness," said one Sarajevan. He is a man of honour who was horrified in May 1992 when his promise of safe passage to Yugoslav Army troops trapped in the city was shattered by gunfire from "rogue elements" among the rag- tag force of policemen, gangsters and volunteers defending Sarajevo. As it happens, his guarantee was extracted under pressure by the Yugoslav Army, which took him prisoner at Sarajevo airport as he returned from peace talks in Geneva. Despite that, the President, a lawyer and university professor before the war, was genuinely angry that his word had been broken.

No man chooses politics in the Balkans as an act of altruism and Mr Izetbegovic must enjoy the power and patronage he wields; one son, Bakir, acts as his head of security, a daughter, Sabina, used to work as his translator, but at least both remain in Sarajevo. Many others have used their positions to send relatives as far from the front lines as possible.

He speaks excellent English but uses only Serbo-Croat in public, occasionally correcting his translator. An austere patrician figure and devout Muslim, he seems to have no problem working with atheists, Serbs and Croats in his government. His famous "Islamic declaration", for which he was jailed by the Communist Yugoslav government, was not a radical call to arms for a Muslim state in Europe but an examination of the workings of Islamic society. It is, however, cited with tedious regularity as proof of his dastardly aims for Bosnia.

In any examination of Mr Izetbegovic and his ruling SDA party, the point must be made - especially to a Western world that associates Islam with jihad revolution and intolerance - that in Bosnia, Muslim is a description of nationality, not an expression of faith. Sarajevo has many self-declared "Muslim atheists", and those who do worship in the city's battered mosques rarely seek to condemn or control their godless neighbours.

Power in Bosnia swirls round Mr Izetbegovic, who has balanced his party's moderates and hardliners. He has struggled this summer with the loss of two key aides - vice-president Ejup Ganic, injured in a car crash, and the foreign minister, killed when his helicopter was shot down by rebel Serbs.

He promised in May to break the blockade of Sarajevo by November; the Bosnian army's offensive in June met a bloody carpet of Serb mines and petered out amid furious recriminations among politicians and soldiers. Unless "Operation Deliberate Force" is extended to open the city, the pressures on Mr Izetbegovic and his troops to try againnow that Nato has weakened their enemies will be enormous.

However, Mr Izetbegovic is in great danger of presiding over a shrinking statelet menaced on all sides. Under the contact group plan, the federation, an unhappy alliance of Bosnians loyal to Sarajevo and Bosnian Croats eager for union with Zagreb, is to form another federation with the Bosnian Serb entity. Both halves will then have the right to confederal links with Croatia and Serbia proper.

Belgrade is a powerful enemy but Zagreb is an uncomfortable friend. Unless enormous pressure is placed on Croatia by its Western allies - Washington and Bonn - Sarajevo and Mr Izetbegovic could find themselves the eastern- most outpost of a Greater Croatia.