Thursday, Oct. 9, 1997
TUZLA, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA -- Bosnia has been fractured by one of the most ferocious ethnic wars this century. Croats, Serbs, and Muslims, who lived together peacefully for decades, have killed neighbors or driven them from their homes to create "ethnically pure" regions.
But not in Tuzla, Bosnia's second-largest city. Here Croat Roman Catholic churches, Islamic mosques, and Serb Orthodox churches stand unscathed within sight of each other.
The congregations worship separately, but the people walk the streets together. Last month, in Bosnia's first municipal elections since the 1992-95 civil war, the citizens of Tuzla showed their appreciation for a man who has helped keep the city together.
Selim Beslagic became mayor of Tuzla in 1990 in the first multiparty elections in the former Yugoslavia. Back then, running on a free-market platform, he wanted to change the socialist economy. But he has spent most of his political life laboring to preserve his city's multiethnic culture.
During the civil war, he organized residents into multiethnic civic groups, protected the city's Serb minority from harassment, and worked with peace activists in Serbia and Croatia. In recognition of his efforts, Mr. Beslagic has been nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But his reward from the government in Sarajevo was to be targeted for ouster in this election by the Muslim-nationalist SDA, the party that controls nearly every other elected office in the Muslim-controlled portion of the Bosnian-Croat Federation.
After a fierce campaign last month, however, the people of Tuzla gave Beslagic an overwhelming mandate and sent the formidable SDA reeling.
The mayor's Joint List 97 coalition took more than half the seats of the 30-seat city council, which elects the city executive. The SDA received barely over a quarter of the seats, actually losing seats won in the prewar election.
"People are becoming aware that the nationalist parties can't get them out of this situation," Beslagic said the morning after the elections. "The people of Bosnia-Herzegovina seem to realize that something has to change in Bosnia."
Beslagic entered politics when the former Yugoslavia's liberal prime minister, Ante Markovic, formed the Union of Bosnian Social Democrats (UBSD) in 1990. Beslagic was the director of a cement factory when he was asked to organize the UBSD in Tuzla and eventually head the coalition the party now leads.
The same 1990 elections that brought Beslagic into office, however, also handed power to the nationalist parties, which soon drove the nation to war.
Under Beslagic's leadership, Tuzla remained the largest free region in Bosnia for the duration of the war. The militia that staved off the Serb onslaught was itself 20 percent Serb. Beslagic maintained throughout the war that the true enemy besieging their city was not the Serbs, but the ethnic animosity they represented.
He forbade the persecution of the city's Serb minority, personally checking up on people like Vojislava Vasiljevic. The elderly Serb woman says that whenever Beslagic saw her on the street he would stop his car and ask if she was experiencing any harassment.
Because of his vigilance, Tuzla's Orthodox church stands as one of the only Serb religious buildings in the federation that is not destroyed or defiled. In fact, the only damage the church suffered during the war came from a Serb shell in 1993.
Beslagic, who is a Muslim, ordered that the church be repaired immediately, and the roof was fixed within 24 hours.
One way Beslagic kept Tuzla's ethnic communities from fragmenting was to organize citizens' groups, like the Association of Women and the Civic Forum, which resettles refugees. But it was the Serb Citizens Council that raised the most eyebrows.
"This guy was sincere in his belief in the national dream of building a multiethnic country and a multiethnic society," recalls Retired Lt. Col. Kenneth Biser, who worked with Beslagic during the war as the UN's senior civil affairs officer in Tuzla.
In January 1995, Colonel Biser says, a group of Bosnian soldiers commandeered eight houses in Tuzla, evicting the Serb and Croat families.
Beslagic complained first to the police, then to the MPs, and finally to the corps commander. When they all refused to act, he went to the international media and focused attention on the seizure.
Eventually the Bosnian Army relented under the pressure and ordered the soldiers out.
But Beslagic's stubbornness earned him hostility from the central government. The commander of the Bosnian Army denouncing him as "an enemy of the republic."
In the tense days during the standoff, Beslagic confided to Biser, "I don't know how long it will be before I get arrested."
Beslagic rejects the idea that he is in any way remarkable for his commitment to a multiethnic city. What is remarkable to him, he says, is how far so much of the country has drifted from its history of ethnic tolerance.
"He has given the youths here a big chance," says City Hall employee Snjezana Kovacevic. "A chance to start where they were stopped by the war, and not go back 1,000 years like most of the parties want to do."
Despite his surprising landslide, Beslagic does not see his victory as a true defeat of nationalism.
"It can't be defeated until antinationalism is spread all over Bosnia," he says. "It has to happen in Republika Srpska (the Serb-administered region of Bosnia) too."
That may well happen, if Dragan Nikovic is any indication. Mr. Nikovic, a construction contractor from the Republika Srpska, says that he has come to Tuzla at least 10 times since the war ended on business. He says he harbors no ethnic resentment.
In a country where all three ethnic enclaves have different license plates, and where sporting the wrong plates in the wrong place can bring harassment and even violence, Nikovic's Republika Srpska plates stood out on the streets of this alien city.
But though he admits that he gets some strange looks in the countryside, he said he doesn't worry about trouble here.
"In Tuzla," he says, "nobody looks at your plates."