The fall of Srebrenica and birth of Republika Srpska
by Alija Izetbegovic - RFE interview June 2000
Before winning the elections and before the start of the war, your party (the SDA) used to entwine its own flag with those of the HDZ and the SDS. Were you aware that this was just an alliance directed against the League of Communists, rather than an alliance for Bosnia-Herzegovina?
Your question is too direct. I did not tie the flags together, I was against it. That business probably annoyed me as much as you. That kind of cooperation with the HDZ and the SDS was not SDA policy. We accepted those parties as a given fact, as the result of free elections that we accepted. The tying together of the flags suggests an emotive link that we never shared with those two parties. It was a matter of individual acts. It is impossible at a meeting involving some 50,000 people to control the behaviour of small groups. I was generally always against it, and asked that it should not be done, that it should be stopped.
In one interview with us, Biljana Plavšić said that she had been against the proposal that Fikret Abdić be made president of the presidency, and that the SDS had supported Alija Izetbegović. Do you recall that?
I don’t know what was happening behind the scenes, but it was the late Nikola Koljević who formally proposed me for the post. It was necessary for a Muslim to be president, and since I was president of the strongest Muslim party that was a logical solution.
Is it true that Slobodan Milošević offered you to become president of the Yugoslav federation or confederation, in return for Bosnia-Herzegovina remaining in Yugoslavia?
It is true. It happened in the great hall of the federal government building some time in the summer of 1991. We walked up and down there for a long time, and he told me then that he felt that I should be the first president of such a state. He was talking, of course, of a rump Yugoslavia, though he did not use the term, speaking instead about whatever Yugoslavia might emerge, whatever kind we might manage to make, and how I should be its first president. I rejected the offer very explicitly.
You were presented with maps of the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina prepared in advance. Who told you about the Tuđman-Milošević agreement in Karađorđevo?
It was [Macedonian] president Kiro Gligorov. The day after he learnt of it he travelled to Sarajevo - I believe it was also for a meeting of the joint [Yugoslav] presidency, but he came a day earlier - and told me: ‘I must tell you something very sad, I have bad news for you, which is that Tuđman and Milošević met yesterday and discussed the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina.’
I would like to ask you also about one of your offers to Croatian president Franjo Tuđman. You offered him a confederation [of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia]. This is known and recorded. You also offered that General Š pegelj should be the first commander of the confederation’s united forces.
It was only a declaration, a kind of letter of intent. As for Š pegelj, that was not part of the text, but of a verbal exchange. My desire was to end the Croat-Bosniak conflict, or if you wish the Croatian-Bosnian war, because Croatia was in a certain way involved in that war. I wished to tell the Croats that they need not feel threatened, and that there was no need for them to wage war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, that we were ready to make a confederation; but it was nothing more than a letter of intent, and in fact matters rested there, i.e. it remained a dead letter.
There is a great deal of speculation these days about the crime committed in Srebrenica, one theory being that Srebrenica was willingly surrendered.
That is nonsense. Srebrenica had been surrounded for a long time. We were besieged here [in Sarajevo] and they there. The corridor dividing Tuzla and Srebrenica was defended by Serb forces who were in contact with western parts of Bosnia; they defended it with all means available, just as they defended the Posavina corridor, so we could not aid Srebrenica. We maintained a hazardous helicopter link. We armed the population there with F-4 missiles or something like that against tanks. The last helicopter which set off for Srebrenica in May was brought down over Srebrenica. All the four doctors who were in it were killed, together with deputy commander Bećirović. One does not send doctors to a city one plans to abandon. We sent doctors because the people of Srebrenica were complaining that they had no doctors, and the army sent its military doctors who lost their lives there in that May disaster. One does not arm someone with sophisticated weaponry if one intends to abandon a city. We could not do more than that. We had tried earlier to break the siege of Sarajevo, but the battle went on for almost a month and ended in failure. We could not break through the siege lines around Sarajevo. We lost a large number of people, they lost a large number of people and the action had to be stopped. Srebrenica came after that. Our army was not in a position to break the corridor dividing Tuzla from Srebrenica. On the other hand, Srebrenica was a ‘safe zone’ and we believed that the world would not permit a safe zone to be overrun in such a manner. However, it did not happen like that. The world betrayed Srebrenica. The United Nations have conducted an investigation organized by Kofi Annan, and the investigation shows clearly that the international community was responsible for it. We now also have the French parliament’s investigation into the role of French officials. General Janvier played a two-faced game. The bases received the order that the Serb positions should be bombed from the air, the planes set off, but they were recalled half-way, since Akashi and Janvier had agreed that they should not do it, so Srebrenica was sacrificed.
Here is a contrary example. While we were preparing for this interview, you said that the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina could have entered Vitez, which was controlled by the Croat component.
Vitez was a different case. Here the Army was much more concentrated. Our superiority in central Bosnia was considerable, which was not true for the Drina border areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina, such as Srebrenica, Foča, Višegrad, Goražde and so on. The situation in central Bosnia was quite different, it greatly favoured our side and we were pressing against Vitez for a long time. Frankly speaking, I feared the entry of our troops into Vitez, since you cannot control troops who have spent a month besieging the town, who have suffered great losses, and who think of themselves as the legitimate forces - which they were - and the other side as illegitimate. You cannot tell what will happen to a town in which there are several thousand civilians. The truth is that I feared that. When at the peak of the crisis Tuđman called me and offered negotiations, I promptly accepted and asked that the action around Vitez be stopped. Then came the Washington Agreement, the cease-fire and so on. This was the beginning of peace between the HVO and the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The third city I wish to talk about is Banja Luka. Momir Bulatović, the former president of FRY and Montenegro, says that it was Yugoslav [i.e. Serbian] diplomacy which effectively prevented the fall of Banja Luka, meaning that the United States and Europe put pressure on you and the Croatian side to halt your troops. Is that correct?
If that is what he had in mind then it is true. As we moved against Banja Luka, as the offensive started in that direction, a huge number of Serb refugees blocked the Posavina corridor on their way to Serbia. Milošević was faced with these angry refugees, who could have threatened the survival of the regime in FRY, and he told the Americans that if things continued like that over there, he would send three or four divisions to establish a balance. The Americans seemingly bought that, since [US] ambassador Miles visited me at the end of September and said that America demanded that the offensive against Banja Luka be stopped for those very reasons. We did not stop the offensive immediately, so he came again five or six days later and told me bluntly: ‘If your action continues, we shall bomb you in the same way we bombed the Serb troops at the end of August and the beginning of September. This is a serious warning.’ We had to stop the action in view of this, since we would have found ourselves in an extremely difficult situation, which would also have encouraged Serb extremists, and who knows what would have happened next. But I think that the Americans believed, rightly or wrongly, in Milošević’s threat to send three or four divisions to support the Serb resistance in Banja Luka. I think that this pressure on America was of decisive importance, and it was followed by the American pressure on us. This is what led to the situation here in Bosnia-Herzegovina of there being no victors or losers.
A few questions about the Dayton Agreement. We are constantly told that as part of the agreement Milošević in fact donated Sarajevo to Bosnia, i.e. made it ‘a gift to Alija’. Was it really so?
No, it was not like that. Milošević spend eighteen days resisting the idea of surrendering Sarajevo. And then, on the eighteenth day, he changed his mind. Why? There are several explanations. His own personal one was: ‘I feel it belongs to Alija, because Alija remained in the city so it is his.’ This is what he said in Dayton and what Halbrooke records in his book. I myself believe that this was not the case. I think that Milošević was desperate for peace because of the state of FRY, because he needed sanctions to be lifted, and after eighteen days of negotiations he knew that there would be no peace unless he accepted a united Sarajevo. The question of Sarajevo was raised some fifteen times in the course of the negotiations, and each time our staff and the American staff in particular - Holbrooke, Christopher and the rest - insisted that Sarajevo must remain united and that there would be no peace without that. Holbrooke said: ‘We can discuss other matters later, maybe even after Dayton, but Sarajevo must be solved at Dayton and must remain a united city.’ And I believe Milošević finally understood that there would be no peace unless he surrendered Sarajevo as a united city. I think this was the main reason, that he needed peace. There is also Abdulah Sidran’s explanation that he needed 100,000 Sarajevo Serbs to populate the [ethnically-cleansed] towns along the Drina.
Many blame you for accepting the name ‘Republika Srpska’ for the other entity. Were you forced to do that, or was it a matter of inattention?
I too feel self-critical, but the price was war. That must be understood. Refusal to accept the name Republika Srpska meant that the war would continue. I discussed this issue at length with Holbrooke on the eve of the Geneva conference. We talked in the American embassy in Ankara from eleven in the evening until two o’clock in the morning. We spent three hours discussing only that question. I kept giving one reason after another why I could not accept the name Republika Srpska, and he responded by giving one reason after another why we had to accept it. At two o’clock we concluded our conversation and Holbrooke said: ‘Mr President, it must be so. We cannot do more for you.’ Perhaps at that time, in that situation, I should have said it was unacceptable for us, and that the war should continue. Perhaps, who knows. No one can tell what would have happened next. We know what happened in this case, but not what would have happened otherwise. It is my impression that the United States would have distanced itself from the war. The Croats would have done likewise, since they had gained their aims. They would have prevented the import of weapons and food across Croat territory and we would have had to fight alone against the Serb army, which was being aided from across the Drina. That was my estimate of the situation, and I felt we would have lost the war, and that is why I accepted the name Republika Srpska with a heavy heart. Holbrooke too now believes that it was a mistake.
This interview with Radio Free Europe (RFE) on 13 June 2000 has been translated from Start (Sarajevo), 6 April 2004; it featured on a CD titled Svjedoci raspada, produced with Ivo Banac, Dubravko Lovrenović and Latinka Perović as consultants, which included interviews with, among others, Stjepan Mesić, Milan Kučan, Kiro Gligorov, Borisav Jović, Raif Dizdarević, Vasil Tupurkovski, Bogić Bogičević. Milo Đukanović, Biljana Plavšić and Nijaz Duraković.