'Godfather' bids to lead Muslims in a new Bosnia

June 26, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

ZAGREB, Croatia -- They call him "Babo" -- the Godfather. Muslim warlord Fikret Abdic adores the nickname and its implication that he protects his own.

This week, the squat, silver-haired former Communist leapt onto the international stage as the surprise new player in the Bosnia-Herzegovina war, making a bid for the leadership of any new Bosnian Muslim state at the expense of old rival President Alija Izetbegovic.

Mr. Abdic's audacity was stunning. He publicly attacked the president as "irresponsible." He took a seven-man delegation to Geneva to observe talks on carving up Bosnia between the Serbian and Croatian presidents, talks that Mr. Izetbegovic had refused to attend.

"I am ready to consider any deal that will bring peace," he said.

This was music to the talks' organizers, Lord Owen and his new partner, Thorvald Stoltenberg. Mr. Izetbegovic was fuming -- and impotent.

Mr. Abdic remains only a member of the nine-man Bosnian collective presidency. Only in his own self-contained enclave of Bihac is he king. He did not delude himself to believe that he could topple Mr. Izetbegovic, who is still in charge.

But the process has begun. Mr. Abdic has weakened Mr. Izetbegovic at home and abroad and has exposed a split among Bosnia's Muslims.

The Bosnian conflict has entered a new stage since the international community abandoned its talk of military action. With the Vance-Owen plan dead, this week's Geneva meeting was about the region's Big Boys, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, carving up Bosnia more or less as their proxies had done on the ground.

The Bosnian leadership met in Zagreb, Croatia, yesterday to assess the new offer. Mr. Izetbegovic did not attend this meeting, either. After about an hour, Mr. Abdic left too, indicating that he saw little chance of any major decision.

Mr. Abdic fears the Muslims will be left with no cards in this high-stakes poker round. He knows that traditional Balkan politics is about feigning, keeping a hidden agenda, making deals but not necessarily honoring them. He does not want to be left out.

He is also a clear match for the Serbian and Croatian strongmen. Like them, he was a Communist who switched to nationalism when the political winds changed.

He managed one of the most successful socialist enterprises, Agrocomerc, but fell foul of political heavyweights and was jailed in 1987 for fraud involving millions of dollars. He served one year of an eight-year sentence.

In parts of Sarajevo, he is hated almost as much as the Serbs. Gordana Knezevic, acting editor-in-chief of Sarajevo's ZTC Oslobodjenje (Liberation) newspaper calls him "a corrupt socialist manager . . . he is perfect to make a deal with anybody."

His pragmatism has brought results in his 305,000-strong Bihac area: It has not suffered major attacks from Serbs or Croats. He is said to have cooperated with both while keeping his highly profitable agricultural plant in operation.

Mr. Abdic says he shares Mr. Izetbegovic's goals and does not want to see the partition of Bosnia. But he believes that continued fighting and hard-line policies are suicidal now that it is clear they will not bring outside help.

His new strategy, according to his aides, would be to reforge ties with the Croats as swiftly as possible. The alliance between the two soured recently as they began fighting each other in central Bosnia.

The aides said he believes it is only a matter of time before the Serbs and Croats are again at war. The Muslims would then have an opportunity to grab back land.

Surely, Mr. Abdic's men argue, it would be better to take control of the economically viable areas being offered now: Bihac, Tuzla, parts or perhaps all of Sarajevo.

A waiting game could then ensue. The economy could be built up. Help could come in from Islamic countries. And when the neighbors begin fighting again, a new grab could be made.

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