Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
International

Karadzic Was Once Considered A Moderate By Many

Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, was indicted for war crimes in 1995 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Among other charges brought against him, Karadzic was held responsible for the three-year siege of Sarajevo, leading to the deaths of as many as 10,000 civilians. NPR's Tom Gjelten wrote about Karadzic in his book Sarajevo Daily: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege , published in 1995 by HarperCollins. The following is adapted and updated from his book.

Radovan Karadzic came to power in Bosnia as the president of the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, known by its initials in Serbian as the SDS. Serbs had been in a strong position in the former Yugoslavia, which consisted of six federated republics (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia), but when the federation broke apart, Serbs found themselves somewhat isolated in the newly independent countries of Croatia and Bosnia. In both republics, SDS leaders attempted to form ethnically pure Serb mini-states in the areas where Serbs predominated. Bosnian Serb military and paramilitary forces violently expelled Muslims and Croats from the designated "Serb" areas, through infamous "ethnic cleansing" operations.

As the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic became especially well known for his vitriolic attacks on Bosnian Muslims. "The Muslims are trying to dominate Bosnia," he argued in October 1991, as the Bosnian Parliament prepared to declare its independence from the Yugoslavia. "They want to create an Islamic state here, but we Serbs are not going to let them."

Advertisement

Friends and associates of Karadzic were initially surprised when he adopted the harsh Serb nationalist line. He had been living for more than 30 years in Sarajevo, a city famous throughout Europe for its multi-ethnic character and tradition of interfaith tolerance, and those who knew his political views considered Karadzic a moderate. He accepted the post of SDS president in Bosnia only after several more prominent Sarajevo Serbs turned it down.

Trained as a psychiatrist, the jovial, 44-year-old Karadzic was generally well liked around Sarajevo but not taken seriously as a politician. If anything, he was seen as a bit of an oddball, having dabbled in everything from chicken farming to poetry in a fruitless quest for wealth and glory. At the time he joined the SDS, Karadzic was serving as psychiatrist for the Sarajevo soccer club, whose team had fallen into a humiliating slump. Karadzic was hired to instill "a winning attitude" in the players and was trying to use group hypnosis with them. Oblivious to the disdain players felt for him, Karadzic maneuvered to be included in team photos and pestered local reporters to write stories about his work with the club.

His thirst for recognition also found expression in his drive to become a famous poet. He was known well enough to get his work included in government-subsidized anthologies of Bosnian poetry, though without acclaim. A critic in the mid-1980s gently noted that Karadzic was "not very successful" with his poetry, because of his tendency to engage in "verbal narcissism." Karadzic himself regarded his poetry as brilliant, however, and told the chief psychiatrist at the mental health clinic where he worked that he was destined to become "one of the three most important poets writing in the Serbian language."

In 1985, Karadzic was convicted of misusing public funds and sent to prison. At the time he was engaged in a chicken-raising venture near Pale, outside Sarajevo. Bills for a house he was building there were allegedly paid by a man named Momcilo Krajisnik, the director of a state conglomerate and subsequently one of the founders of the SDS. It was Krajisnik who asked Karadzic to accept the SDS presidency, and some of Karadzic's friends concluded that he took the position in part because he felt indebted to Krajisnik for financing his Pale venture and then persuading a Sarajevo judge to order his release from prison. Though he was always eager to be in the spotlight, Karadzic was a newcomer to nationalist politics. Just three months before taking over the SDS presidency, Karadzic had joined a newly formed Green Party in Bosnia, declaring in a speech at a party forum that "Bolshevism is bad, but nationalism is even worse." Some at the forum recalled that the main Karadzic contribution had been a proposal to label food packages according to standards of healthiness.

One week after his appointment to the SDS presidency in June 1990 — before his anti-Muslim line was well-rehearsed — Karadzic was still expressing moderate views. "In Serbia, the media are wrongly speaking of the dangers of fundamentalism in Bosnia," Karadzic said. "The situation is quite different. ... Our Bosnian Muslims are Slavs, of our same blood and language, who have chosen the European life along with their Muslim faith. In my estimation, it is not necessary that the Serbs once again defend Christian Europe in the fight against Islam. We Serbs are closer to our Muslims than we are to that Europe."

Advertisement

Hard-line nationalism was the ascendant ideology in Serb circles, however, and within months Karadzic was spewing anti-Muslim invective along with his SDS colleagues. Whether he believed his own hateful words is another question. When he ultimately decided to establish a false identity in order to escape prosecution as a war criminal, it was to his roots in the health food movement that Karadzic returned. At the time of his arrest, he was billing himself on his Web site — under the name of "Dr. Dragan" — as "one of the most prominent experts in the field of alternative medicine, bio-energy and macrobiotic diet in the whole of the Balkans."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.