The central issue, says Mirsad Hadžikadić, is identity. So much depends not on what you are but what you perceive yourself to be, what you idealize as your tribe. What’s the basis for that? Religion? Ethnicity? Economic interests? Blood? Soil? You’re an American. Fine. What does that mean? What do you want it to mean? You’re a Bosniak, or a Croat, or a Serb. Where do you draw that border, and under what circumstances is someone on the other side your enemy?
Here are Hadžikadić’s circumstances: He’s a 68-year-old Charlottean who lives in a condo uptown and a professor of software and information systems at UNC Charlotte, where he’s been a faculty member since 1987. He’s a native of the city of Banja Luka, in what used to be Yugoslavia and is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. He’s a Bosniak, a Muslim. Five years ago—34 years after he left his home country to pursue a computer science doctorate in the United States—he decided he wanted to go home and run for president.
“I’ve always been interested in everything and anything, and this was one of the greatest challenges on Earth,” Hadžikadić says in his office at UNCC on a weekday afternoon just before Christmas. “The routine bores me.”
The presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, commonly abbreviated BiH, isn’t like others. It’s a three-member panel, each seat representing the country’s main ethnic and religious factions: Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs, and Catholic Croats. The early-1990s breakup of Communist Yugoslavia➊ led to a series of wars and a peace agreement that created the three-headed presidency and left a fractured political and cultural climate that persists.
Even as he lived and worked in Charlotte, Hadžikadić maintained dual citizenship and held tight to his homeland. In 2006, he was the founding president of the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advises Congress and advocates for the country’s entrance into NATO and the European Union. He earned a master’s in public administration from Harvard in 2009. But he didn’t consider running for office in BiH until fall 2017, when a friend and fellow academic in Sarajevo, the capital city, called to suggest he run for the Bosniak seat on the presidential panel.
Hadžikadić sought advice from colleagues and friends. Most told him he had no chance. If, by some miracle, he won, he’d have to uproot his life and work in Charlotte. But he kept thinking about what his friend in Sarajevo had told him: Remember what happened in the ’90s. If you don’t run now, there’s no guarantee BiH as we know it will exist in four years. Hadžikadić thought: What does it say about me if I don’t even try?
He tried, in 2018 and again last year. He remains in Charlotte; Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a country. His efforts seem to have planted a seed, though. No one knows if it’ll grow, or when.
“I was aware of the complexity of the task, and I knew from the very beginning that it was going to take 20, 30, 40 years, and that I will not see it,” he says. “But I wanted to create an organization that might change things. I wanted just to change the narrative, for them to see a different way of thinking. …
“It’s not a good situation for anybody other than the political elite that is using this opportunity to divide and conquer and use corruption to personally enrich themselves. I was just hoping that, eventually, people will see it. How long will it take? I don’t know.”
We’re deep within the School of Data Science, a warren of rooms on the first floor of the Colvard building at UNCC. The mammoth structure, a relic of the 1970s, is a confusing maze that itself is partitioned into two regions, Colvard North and South. The campus is virtually deserted on a gray, chilly afternoon. Hadžikadić is explaining the historic reluctance of Serbs and Croats to accept Bosnia as a distinct entity when Josh Hertel, the school’s director, pokes his head in the door.
“Sorry to interrupt. I’ve locked up that side,” he says, then adopts a mock-serious tone: “You are in charge, once again, of the entire operation.” Hertel drops the act. “When you go, just turn the lock on that door, and we’re good to go.”
“Just turn the lock?”
“Just turn the lock. Turn off the lights, rotate the tires, change the oil.”
“Yeah, will do,” Hadžikadić says. “Thank you.”
“Have a good holiday.”
Hadžikadić wants people who have historically thought of themselves as members of tribes to think of themselves as citizens of a nation. That might not be possible. There’s a reason why “balkanize” is a synonym for “divide.” BiH and its neighbors Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro emerged from centuries of conflict among South Slavs over land, religion, and power. (“Yugoslavia” means, literally, “Land of the South Slavs.”)
Of the four, BiH is the most diverse, which is another way of saying “least cohesive.” It’s in two parts, obviously. But the traditional regions don’t correspond to the formal political division established by the international Dayton Accords in 1995: the Bosnian Serb Republic and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The latter is populated mainly by Bosniaks and Croats, although members of all three groups live in both regions. Political corruption is rampant. The education system is fractured. Tens of thousands of young people have left for better opportunities in the EU. Citizens want reform but usually find only established and powerful candidates on their ballots.
Factor in the Balkans’ centuries of domination by the Ottoman Turks; a pair of world wars in which western European empires used the region as a pawn; a decadeslong Communist era followed by a series of civil wars; and shifting national borders, and you see the choppiness of the waters Hadžikadić decided to wade into in 2018. How do you create one from so many?
“They can be whatever they want,” he says. “I just want to say, ‘OK, but in addition to that, accept that there is a higher level of identity. You live in this country. You have for 500 years. Accept that you are Bosnian and Herzegovinian in addition to being Serb or Croat or Bosnian. Because you live in this country. Your children live here. You should contribute to this country.’ And that’s not happening.”
In May 2018, Hadžikadić took a sabbatical from UNCC and moved into a condo he maintains in central Sarajevo. His platform, though short on concrete measures, was long on ideals: improvements in education, enforcement of anti-corruption measures, an emphasis on professionalism, a call to engage young people in a political system devoted to democracy. He knew his chances of victory were slim. He fielded death threats. But people began to listen. Polls showed him gaining adherents. “I would say I’m probably somewhere between third and fourth place right now,” he told WFAE in October 2018, just before the election. “But we’ll see what will happen in the end.”
He lost, of course—but he and his “Platform for Progress” earned 10.1% of the vote, placing fourth behind three establishment candidates.➋ The results were encouraging enough for him to run again in 2022. But by then, he says, established parties had co-opted enough of his rhetoric to close the gap in voters’ minds between them and him. Also, his status as an outsider who spoke in generalities—someone who, for the most part, didn’t even live in BiH—hurt him. Last October, Hadžikadić won 5.4% of the vote. He doesn’t plan to run again.
“I was convinced (in 2018) that he was capable of bringing some fresh air to our politics. He showed a lot of potential for the future,” says Nenad Simovic, the senior director for the National Democratic Institute’s BiH office in Sarajevo; the NDI, based in Washington, D.C., is an NGO that works on democratic and human rights initiatives around the world. “Unfortunately, Professor Hadžikadić couldn’t make it. Maybe it wasn’t time for him. Maybe the political system wasn’t ready for his kind of politics. Because he is different, definitely.”
The Platform for Progress is making limited progress. Late last year, its members resigned, and the organization began to restructure to prepare for local elections in 2024. Hadžikadić remains its nominal leader, but he’s left most of the detailed work to members in BiH. “Our path is long-term,” it announced in December. “… (T)he key to progress in Bosnia and Herzegovina lies in education and changing political consciousness.”
For now, Simovic says, it’d be hard for any outsider party or group to win even one seat in the national parliament, or a handful of local elections. “On the other hand, I think people should not give up,” he adds. “If people recognize that some (politicians) are different, and they work on issues that affect their day-to-day lives, more people will do what Professor Hadžikadić was trying to do.”
If Hadžikadić’s goal was to make citizens think and talk more about democracy, realize that they can help determine the future of their nation, his candidacy accomplished at least that. Where it goes from here, he doesn’t know. That doesn’t apply only to his native land. BiH, he tells me, is “where the world is going”: a cauldron of groups that observe boundaries—ethnic, religious, tribal, historic—that don’t need to exist.
One of his life’s ironies is that he came to the United States nearly four decades ago and marveled at how his adopted home seemed to have figured it out. That was part of his pitch when he ran for office, that he was a kind of emissary from another place who could introduce a better way of doing things. But the country he left his homeland for, he says, looks increasingly like the homeland.
“I see the United States as the future Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he says. “I know it’s hard to say. But look, it’s just nationalism and religion existing at the same place and influencing the politics. We are, more and more here, being divided. … The center is disappearing—and that started, I think, with redrawing electoral districts. Technology is contributing so that it’s easier to find people like you, who think like you, as opposed to trying to find the other arguments. There is a division between haves and have-nots. There are racial issues here, of course, and always have been.
“Democracy’s under great attack here, and there are attempts to become …” He pauses. “… much less so. I don’t want to use the harsher word. We are going backwards, in a tribalistic sense, in this country, and there’s less cohesiveness and fewer integrative things that keep us together as America.”
So what’s the solution? A third political party? Maybe. A broad commitment to reform, starting with an end to gerrymandering? That would help. His two adult children are successful professionals who live and work here, American in every important respect. He knew his candidacy in BiH was a long shot, maybe an exercise in naivete. Yet it had its purpose. “It brought to the front, in a much more forceful way,” he says, “the value of democracy and how fragile it is.”
Before I leave, I ask Hadžikadić about an odd piece of art on his office wall. It’s a sepia-toned spiral within a square within the physical frame. You have to look closely at the vortex to discern that each of its arms consists of dozens of smaller vortices. The image seems to swirl and disappear into its own center.
“One of my Ph.D. students did that, and then she framed it for me as a gift. It’s a fractal,” he explains. “When you look at something, the part looks just like the whole. The deeper you go, the more the whole shows itself.”
GREG LACOUR is the editor.
➊ Communist Yugoslavia, founded in 1946, consisted of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991 and 1992 as the republics declared independence, and ethnic tribes within them began to fight brutal civil wars, mainly over control of land.
The Bosnian War, which began in 1992, pitted Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks against each other, left as many as 250,000 dead, and displaced more than 2 million. A 1995 peace agreement among the three groups—signed outside Dayton, Ohio, and known as the “Dayton Accords”—established Bosnia and Herzegovina as a unified state and outlined a system of government. But it also formalized the essential divide between Bosniaks and Croats in one region and Serbs in another, and that fracture remains intact.
➋ The Dayton Accords hinged on satisfying the demands of Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, which ruled out the possibility of a single president. The “solution” was the three-member presidency. Elections are every four years, and the representatives rotate as chairs of the panel every eight months, beginning with whoever won the most votes. Even more confusing: Each of the country’s two official regions, the Bosnian Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) in the north and east and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the west, has its own president and legislature. It’s “probably the world’s most complicated system of government,” The Guardian wrote in 2014, “… which has made governance extremely difficult.”
Sources: Britannica, CIA World Factbook, The Guardian