Radovan Karadzic (born 1945), the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, pursued a course of "ethnic cleansing" as he struggled to gain independence from the Muslim-controlled Bosnian government in the former Yugoslavia. He has been indicted by the World Court in The Hague for his actions.
Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serb faction in the war-torn former Yugoslavia, has been called a man guilty of war crimes, the "Butcher of Bosnia," and a world-class terrorist. His political opponents have called him a "black-shirt Fascist," and compared him to former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. His program of "ethnic cleansing," which has resulted in the death of more than 200,000 Muslim opponents and the displacement of an estimated one million more—in addition to the systematic rapes of thousands of Muslim women by Serb troops—has sickened world observers. The New York Times has claimed that he is "surely one of Europe's most endangered men," who should include a bullet-proof vest in his wardrobe if he does not already own one. And New Perspectives Quarterly introduced an interview with Karadzic by opining that his political philosophy seems to be, "Do genocide unto them before they can do it unto you." All in all, Karadzic is not a well-loved man.
Although roundly criticized inside and outside of his country, Karadzic has the one quality possessed by almost every successful politician: he has endured. He has more guns and a bigger army than anyone else in the midst of an extremely chaotic situation, and because of that essential fact, governments have been forced to swallow hard and deal with him. In fact, as 1995 began, Karadzic was ignoring United Nations and United States diplomats and calling most of his own shots in determining the course of the Bosnian civil war.
Not much about the early life of Karadzic is known. He was born in Montenegro, which became one of Yugoslavia's six autonomous republics in 1945. In the early 1960s he relocated to Sarajevo to attend the university and ended up in a literary circle of poets and dissidents. Karadzic was educated as a psychiatrist but has always had an abiding love of literature and poetry. He studied both psychiatry and poetry in a year of graduate studies at Columbia University in New York City during 1974 and 1975. According to an interview in the New York Times, he especially likes Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."
While in Sarajevo, Karadzic met and married another psychiatrist, his wife Lilyan, and they have a son and a daughter. Although he must have been aware of ethnic strife from his years in the hills of Montenegrin, he and his wife's family lived together in an apartment building in Sarajevo with Muslims, Serbs, Croats, and Croat-Hungarians. As Samantha Power pointed out in U.S. News and World Report, "It remains a metaphor for the Sarajevo spirit of coexistence: Even though Karadzic himself has been saying for years that Bosnia's three nations 'cannot live together,' all but Karadzic and his Serb in-laws still reside at [the building]."
Karadzic's daughter, Sonja, was identified in a scathing New Yorker editorial against Karadzic as his current main buffer against an increasingly hostile international press corps. "Only journalists who have produced favorable reports on her father and his followers are allowed into the territory under Serb control," editorialist Anna Husarska wrote in December of 1994. "Others are simply turned back at the border-control checkpoints. Thus, the outside world has largely ceased to hear about all the atrocities committed in the Bosnian Serbs' holy war of conquest."
As a psychiatrist, Karadzic worked mainly in state hospitals and focused primarily on patients with neuroses, especially paranoia. Some observers have noted that many of his political pronouncements—which the Washington Post diplomatically noted seem to be "misstatements of fact"— often are meant to instill fear and a measure of paranoia in his listeners. "He has dredged up old stories of massacres of Serbs by Croats and Muslims, playing on old fears," the Boston Globereported. "Some of the charges are bizarre— that the Muslims, for example, are sending out subliminal messages on Sarajevo television telling Muslims to attack Serbs and destroy Serb cultural monuments." The New York Times noted of Karadzic's probing into paranoia and his current political stances, "The irony is unmistakable, since what has driven the Serbs' offensive in Bosnia has been the deeply rooted anxieties of Balkan history."
The New York Times summed up Karadzic's and the Serbian point of view in a 1992 article. The paper reported, "A two-hour conversation with Mr. Karadzic, as with almost everybody caught up in Yugoslavia's disintegration, is a bumpy ride through Balkan history: the 500-year Turkish occupation, Europe's betrayal of Bosnia's Serbs at the Congress of Vienna in 1878, the devastating Serb losses in World War I, the genocide by Croatoan fascists in World War II. All this has driven a Serb conviction that their survival could be assured only by a "Greater Serbia," or at least by a pan-Slavic state, Yugoslavia, in which Serbs could dominate."
That background serves as a foundation for the war that broke out in April of 1992 in what was once Yugoslavia. When Bosnia declared its independence, fighting began. The bordering state of Serbia has supported Serbs within Bosnia—the Bosnian Serbs that Karadzic leads. The Croats and Muslims formed an alliance to counter the much better armed Serbian aggressors. According to well-publicized census data, before the fighting began, Serbs in Bosnia comprised about 31 percent of the population. Muslims accounted for 41 percent, and Croats for 17 percent. By the beginning of 1995, Serbian-backed forces controlled about 70 percent of the territory in Bosnia. The New York Times said of that 70 percent: "A horseshoe-shaped chunk of land, it was identified by Serbian nationalists and military planners in the years before the war as territory that would be seized and eventually annexed to Serbia if Yugoslavia fell apart after the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe in 1989… . Similar maps have been drawn up since the late 19th Century as part of the nationalist dream of a 'Greater Serbia' in which all Serbs could live under Serbian rule."
Karadzic obviously has strong Serbian nationalist leanings. The Boston Globe quoted a high-level diplomat just weeks after the fighting broke out in 1992. "Democracy is not exactly triumphant," the diplomat noted of the Yugoslav situation. "It's more like a new brand of national socialism—fascism. That is what Karadzic embodies. And that is what is worrying."
However much his critics deplore him, Karadzic has generated an element of interest among those observers who are required to chart his political comings and goings. He is described as possessing a level of sophistication that one would expect to find in a well-educated medical man. He is "nattily dressed," often surrounded by bodyguards, and often to be found holding court in posh European hotels. And no description of Karadzic is complete without mention of his long flowing hair, or his thick clumps of eyebrows. The Washington Post once described Karadzic as "a robust bear of a man [who] talks as much as a traveling salesman."
Of course, at various times during the three-year-old conflict, which Karadzic has had a great role in prolonging, descriptions of him have been much harsher. Former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger pointed out in 1992 that Karadzic was a possible war criminal because of the ethnic cleansing policy he promulgated. In fact, when Karadzic traveled to the United Nations in February of 1993 for yet another round of peace talks to resolve the conflict, there was talk of denying him a visa to enter the United States. Five Republican senators signed a letter asking that Karadzic be denied the visa. The Clinton Administration, arguing that Karadzic should be allowed to visit the United Nations, nonetheless had reservations; a State Department spokesman was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "We continue to believe that this man has things that he has to answer for."
Foremost among those "things" is the well-documented Bosnian Serb policy of eliminating Muslims from Serbian occupied land within Bosnia. Karadzic is generally viewed to have been handpicked for his position by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Together, the two Serb leaders have waged an ethnic cleansing campaign that has been denounced by the world community. Anthony Lewis wrote in a 1993 New York Times column, "The phrase 'ethnic cleansing' was actually invented by the Serbs for their operations in Bosnia. And everyone knows what it has meant: the murder of 150,000 Muslims [since increased to about 250,000] and the expulsion of more than one million from their towns and villages. There is no secret about any of this except to the willfully blind… . Serbian soldiers themselves have described the systematic rape of Muslim women."
In a November, 1993 article, the New York Times reported that Karadzic appeared "pallid and nervous, particularly when asked about assertions by Western governments that he and his fellow leaders will have to answer for war crimes that Serbian troops are accused of committing." Karadzic's long-standing response to those charges is that the Bosnian Serbs are merely protecting themselves from Muslim aggression. "I regret every life that has been lost," he told the New York Times, "But it is not the Serbs' fault." He has argued that allowing the Muslims to gain control of Bosnia will result in an Islamic foothold in Europe and the expansion of Islamic "fundamentalism." And he has stated, quite simply, in a New York Times article, "History has proven it…. It is impossible for Serbs to live together with other peoples in a unitary state."
Karadzic has always called for a partition of Bosnia into three parts, each controlled by a rival faction. He has said he would be willing to give up some of the territory his forces seized in order to get a Serb-controlled government in one of the partitions. Not everyone believes that. The latest peace plan—in late 1994—had the country divided up into two portions, with the Muslim-Croats controlling 51 percent and the Serbs 49 percent. The Bosnians accepted it; the Serbs rejected it. When U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali traveled to Sarajevo in November of 1994 to meet with Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader refused to meet him at the airport. Boutros-Ghali, quoted in the New York Times, said Karadzic's snub "projected a bad image on his policy, on his attitude and even his personality." Karadzic did not seem to care. "As for the Americans," the New Yorker opined, "Karadzic has learned that when they start to get bellicose it is enough to whisper 'Vietnam.' The word alone seems to scare them witless."
The U.S. government did try to put pressure on Karadzic by applying the squeeze to Serbia and Milosevic. The United States figured that since it was not going to commit any military power to stop the fighting in Bosnia, it could put pressure on the Bosnian Serbs by applying economic sanctions to their suppliers—Serbia. But Milosevic refused to meet with a U.S. ambassador in February of 1995, further hurting the chances for peace. This came even though there had been a reported rift between Milosevic and his protege, Karadzic.
The relationship between Milosevic and Karadzic is often compared to that between Frankenstein and his monster, according to the New York Times. "Mr. Milosevic plucked Dr. Karadzic from obscurity several years ago and helped engineer his rise, but now finds he cannot control the figure he helped create." But the rift between the two men was characterized in other quarters as a ruse, set up merely to placate the United States and to get the United States to stop putting pressure on Serbia.
In late March of 1995, Karadzic made an offer of peace that surprised many observers, since he seemed to hold the upper hand in the fighting. Bosnian Serb forces were faced with a lack of fuel to power their army and Karadzic was seen as ready to make concessions. But the Christian Science Monitor quoted an anonymous Western diplomat as saying, "Now Karadzic is the peacemaker? I don't trust him." And in late April, the United Nations-sponsored International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia formally named Karadzic as a suspected war criminal and asked that Bosnian leaders allow it to bring its own charges against the leader in order to prevent him from being tried twice—at the tribunal and in Bosnia.
The tribunal indicted Karadzic on charges of genocide, other civilian-directed offenses, and crimes carried out by subordinates, including murder, rape, and torture. The general commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, Ratko Mladic, was also indicted. Karadzic flaunted the Dayton peace accord, drafted in 1995 by world leaders to end the war in Bosnia. One of the agreement's provisions called for him to relinquish power and hold elections, which he refused to do until the United States threatened economic sanctions. It is speculated that although he has claimed that he has stepped down, he will continue to pull the strings. If he continues his hold, perhaps military force will eventually be necessary, according to the New York Times, returning the threat of more conflict in the already ravaged land.
Biljana Plavsic eventually replaced Karadzic as Bosnian Serb president. However, she found herself locked in a power struggle with Karadzic's allies and fearing for her life ever since her outspoken attacks on the former president and threats to arrest Karadzic and his supporters for rampant corruption. Bosnian Serb ultra-nationalists loyal to Karadzic expelled Plavsic from the ruling Serb Democratic party in July 1997, demanding she step down from office. In response, she dissolved parliament and called for new elections on September 1, 1997, but Karadzic loyalists refused to recognize her decision and said they would continue to hold parliamentary sessions.
Boston Globe, April 25, 1992, p. 2.
Christian Science Monitor, March 27, 1995, p. 6.
Detroit Free Press, April 24, 1995. p. 5A; April 27, 1995, p. 5A.
Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1993, p. A1; March 3, 1994, p. A11.
New Perspectives Quarterly, fall 1992, p. 47.
New Statesman & Society, June 2, 1995, pp. 14-16.
New Yorker, December 26, 1994/January 2, 1995 (double issue), p. 7.
New York Times, May 17, 1992, Sec. 4, p. 7; February 3, 1993, p.A8; March 5, 1993, p. A8; March 24, 1993, p. A3; May 19, 1993, p. A10; October 29, 1993, p. A8; November 14, 1993, p. 1; July 22, 1994, p. A3; August 11, 1994, p. A10; December 1, 1994, p. 1; February 3, 1995, p. A12; April 13, 1995, p. 1; November 3, 1995, pp. A1, A12; June 3, 1996, pp. A1, A4.
U.S. News & World Report, July 24, 1995, p. 26.
Washington Post, November 10, 1992, p. A24; August 19, 1993, p. A24.
CNN Interactive June 25, 1997, "http://cnn.com/WORLD/europe/9707/24/RB002732.reut.html."
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the New York Times Web site, May 17, 1996, and May 21, 1996.