Fahrudin Radončić and Political Corruption in Bosnia
For hundreds of years, Sarajevo’s skyline has been defined by the towers that rise up above the red clay rooftops. Bosnia’s complicated history, in fact, can be divided into the periods of the church spires and the periods of the minarets, and most recently the uneasy coexistence of the two.
But it was only recently that a new type of tower began to rise in Sarajevo, looming higher than all the others. After the Bosnian War of the early 1990s, international developers and local businessmen made newly rich from the conflict began to erect tall glass office buildings, far out of scale with the rest of the city’s architecture. To some city residents, these new buildings were harbingers of the 21st century, symbols of the wave of economic development that would help rebuild their war torn country. To others, the buildings were symbols of greed—the playthings of rich men, ugly reminders of their selfishness, ego, and corruption.
The Avaz Twist Tower is one such tower. Although it was quickly overtaken, for a few brief months in 2007 it was the tallest building in the Balkans and a source of pride for the city. The Twist Tower, however, is well known within Bosnia not for its elegant spiral facade or its immense height, but instead for its owner Fahrudin Radončić.
Today, Radončić is a powerful politician and controls the largest daily newspaper in Bosnia, but like many of the country’s current elite, Radončić first rose to prominence by distinguishing himself during the Balkans wars. Especially in Sarajevo, the events of the early 1990s still cast a shadow over the city, including over the ways in which citizens perceive leadership and politics. From April of 1992 to February of 1996, Republika Srpska forces engaged in what would become the longest siege of a capital city in modern times. It was from this chaos—the constant shelling, the risk of sniper fire, the limited supplies—that Radončić first emerged as a newspaper owner with the creation of Bošnjački Avaz, or Bosniak Voice. As its name implied, his weekly paper was a resistance tool, meant to give voice to the frustrated and besieged ethnic Bosniaks.
Although Radončić gained credibility from the Bosniak people because of his newspaper and a nationalist book he wrote in 1990 about the historical oppression of Muslims in the Balkans, he is not a simple partisan. As far back as 1995, when Sarajevo was still under siege, money seemed to motivate his actions as much as anything else. That year, he changed the name of his newspaper from Bosniak Voice to a more universally palatable Daily Voice, and switched its publication schedule from weekly to daily.
In the years after the war, instead of trying to consolidate political power, Radončić focused his energies on expanding his media company. At times, his business relationships conflicted with his presumed core beliefs. For example, in 2008, he entered into a business partnership with Miroslav Mišković, a Serbian who had worked closely with the Slobodan Milošević regime. Milošević, a former President of Yugoslavia and Serbia, would eventually stand trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes against the Bosniaks and others during the Bosnian War.
Today, Radončić’s newspaper has grown to form the centerpiece of a media empire that includes multiple publications and television stations. At 58 years old, he cuts an imposing figure with slicked back gray hair and the same broad shoulders of his youth. Yet within Bosnia, because of his wealth and the gossip that often follows him, he is sometimes compared joking to the Italian media tycoon and politician Silvio Berlusconi. Almost everyone knows about him. His media company, Avaz Media, looms over the city from its offices on the upper floors of the Avaz Twist Tower, and like Donald Trump in the United States, he’s known for affixing his naming name to his buildings.
In 2009, Radončić formally entered the political arena with the creation of his own political party, the Union for a Better Future of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SBB). While this wouldn’t ordinarily generate headlines in a country with more than 183 active political parties and a rotating tripartite presidency, Radončić’s party performed well in its first election, garnering the fifth most votes nationally and placing him only four percentage points behind the winner of the Bosniak Member of the Presidency. In 2012, Radončić was elected to the influential Minister of Security position, which he held for two years before being ousted by members of his own coalition following riots and unrest that some characterized as the “Bosnian Spring.”
Beyond those broad strokes, it’s hard to say anything with certainty about Fahrudin Radončić. According to an anonymous editor on his English-language Wikipedia page, he is a “pragmatic and tolerant person” and a “genuine protector and promoter of Bosnian national interests.”
A Bosnian commenter on the Avaz newspaper Facebook page disagrees. Roughly translated, he opined that a vote for Radončić’s party, the SBB, is a vote for “Godless communism.”
A young man seated outside a cafe next to the Sarajevo Cathedral chuckled when asked about him. “Well, he’s very controversial,” he said. “I have politicians that I really hate, but, I don’t know, he’s probably somewhere in the middle.”
It’s easy to be controversial in a country where hard facts are difficult to come by. During the long period of violence, democratic institutions crumbled. What exists now are largely artifacts of the Dayton Accords, a peace agreement cobbled together by representatives from the UN, the US, and Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups, making Bosnia the rare example of a country whose main constitutional document is a peace treaty. As a consequence, Bosnia’s government’s structure is deeply confusing, and essential services like courts are often duplicative and ineffective. Newspapers are too expensive for many Bosnians to purchase, and those who can afford them find only short news pieces or fully reproduced press releases.
Corruption has made it difficult for reform-minded politicians to gain a foothold in Bosnian politics. Everyday Bosnians can rattle off the going rate for bribes for particular services—everyone knows, for example, that the real price to deliver a baby at the public hospital is 2,000 KM (approximately 1,200 USD). According to a 2011 survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 15 percent of adult citizens in Bosnia reported being offered a bribe for their vote in the previous year’s election.
“Radončić? He’s controversial,” says an employee of a major international NGO while hanging outside of the BBI Centar, a large, modern shopping mall. “Some people, especially older people, think that since he was already rich maybe he won’t need to steal from us so much.”
Like other post-war countries, popular politicians tend to project a certain Putinesque strength. Men like Radončić, muscular and opinionated, tend to be respected, or at least frequently voted for. Like the politicians that led the region into war, today’s leaders realize that they can score points among the electorate by enflaming ethnic tensions, whether they personally believe their rhetoric or not.
Nenad Simovic, the director of the Bosnian office of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), began his career in Kosovo just after the war. “I thought Bosnia would be easy after that, but I was wrong,” he said. “If I just read the papers here, without any other information, I would think the war were still ongoing.”
Lawmakers have tried to improve the situation. Bosnia’s policy on conflict of interest specifically states that no one can be both a government minister and an “authorized person in a private company.” Yet Radončić managed to avoid this and become Minister of Security in 2012 by divorcing his wife and transferring the company to her name.
“I don’t see a problem with him basically owning Avaz,” says the same young man outside the Cathedral. “He gives people jobs and he pays them, on time. That’s a big deal, because if one person in your family is working, all of you can get by.”
International efforts at rebuilding strong, independent civic institutions in Bosnia have had mixed success. One of the few success stories has been the Center for Investigative Reporting, which was established in 2004 with a USAID grant to improve access to quality journalism. Today it’s entirely independent from international donors and is staffed by 18 of the most successful journalists—many poached from other leading newspapers.
Azhar Kalamujić is one of those journalists. Through his translator he joked that he looks like George Clooney, and it’s kind of true. On the cover of CIN’s 10th anniversary booklet, he’s posed next to a miner and is wearing a matching uniform, complete with hardhat and a digital camera around his neck. He said he was drawn to CIN because the quality of their work: “My newspaper was the best in the country, but it was nothing compared to this.”
CIN reporters have a quote from Mahatma Gandhi they often use when describing their organization’s trajectory: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” It was hard for CIN to build up its reputation in the early years, especially since politicians had little incentive to talk to its reporters, but it slowly established itself through carefully researched reporting designed to expose inefficiency and ineptitude in government. In 2007, for example, CIN collected 92 food samples from Sarajevo restaurants and tested them for dangerous levels of bacteria. After 47 came back positive, the embarrassed Bosnian Food Safety Agency announced plans to monitor bacteria levels and shutter many restaurants.
As the subjects of the CIN’s articles became more high-level, its political opponents tried responding with ridicule and aggression. For example, when a man named Naser Kelmendi and his two sons were publically accused of drug trafficking, their lawyer Midhat Kočo told a CIN reporter: “You journalists have written so much just from your head that you don’t deserve our attention and confidence that we should talk to you—especially from CIN. It’s tragic.” Sometimes, their targets fought back more literally.
“We’ve had a few death threats,” Kalamujić said. “One time, one of our reporters was sitting at her desk and she gets a threatening phone call. We’ve been trained to keep our heads calm so she says, ‘Thanks for what you’ve said, and we will make sure to review your proposal.’”
As far back as 2009, CIN has reported on the business connections between Fahrudin Radončić and drug trafficker Naser Kelmendi. Although Radončić denies involvement with Kelmendi, in 2004 the Avaz Media group gave Kelmendi land and a house in exchange for 120 square meters of office space and 200,000 KM. In 2005, Kelmendi managed to get two Jeep Grand Cherokees armored in the US and shipped back to Bosnia, despite being named on a U.S. drug trafficking watch list. One of those Jeeps is now owned by Avaz.
The two men are clearly business associates, but beyond that the facts are uncertain. What of the ice cream factory owned by Kelmendi’s half-brother Bećir that city residents have never seen in operation? What about the time police raided the Casa Grande Hotel in Sarajevo and watched Kelmendi’s sons throw their guns away as they ran out the back door? For NGOs like NDI, fighting corruption this obvious and widespread can be difficult. NDI’s director Simovic summarized how many Bosnians feel: “Who cares? I cannot see it. I cannot touch it.”
Even a murder allegation hasn’t cut through the noise and misinformation. In September of 2014, CIN reported on the murder of Ramiz “Ćelo” Delalić, a former army commander and member of organized crime who was shot dead outside a Sarajevo apartment building seven years before. According to CIN and an indictment by the Special Prosecution Office of the Republic of Kosovo, the men responsible for commissioning the crime were Naser Kelmendi and Fahrudin Radončić.
The key source for these allegations was a woman named Šejla Jugo Turković, a strikingly beautiful television reporter for one of Avaz’s news shows. She was a former confidante of Radončić and is married to one of his rivals.
Since coming forward with her story, her looks and lifestyle have begun to deteriorate. When she gave an interview with CIN just prior to the article’s publication, they met her at her house, which was extravagantly large but barely furnished. She rolled cigarettes and nervously smoked them. Her hair was unbrushed and she wore sweatpants.
“If you want to discredit a woman, the easiest way is to say she is a whore,” she told the reporter from CIN. But she swore that the allegations she has made have nothing to do with her relationship to her husband, or the relationship she denied having with her former boss Radončić. She just wanted to tell the truth but was frightened of potentially violent backlash.
According to her, Kelmendi and Radončić commissioned the murder because of greed and a lust for revenge. Kelmendi saw Delalic as a rival and threat to his lucrative drug trafficking buisness. Radončić blamed Delalic for the murder of an associate, and disliked his bragging about a relationship with Radončić’s wife 20 years before. For over a year, the two men supposedly met at the top of one of Radončić’s skyscrapers to plan the murder, eventually hiring three hitmen from a nearby town.
Radončić, of course, denies all of this—his friendship with Kelmendi, any substantive relationship with Turković, and anything involving a murder. Turković, he’s claimed, lied to deflect attention from her husband, who is facing forty years in prison for charges including organized crime and murder.
In an astonishing turn of events, in 2013, Turković’s husband pled guilty to the attempted murder of Nesar Kelmendi, allegedly on the instruction of Fahrudin Radončić. The only people who’ve been willing to corroborate Turković’s story are the parents of one of the hitmen, although the hitman himself cannot confirm anything independently because he died while trying to plant a bomb under the car of one of his alleged co-conspirators.
This circular absurdity makes the case hard for the public to grasp. Who killed whom and when? And is any of this worth exploring when all the reasonable political alternatives might be in on it too? Why bother trying to afford the daily paper when all of the mainstream options seem to treat truth as of only secondary importance?
As Bosnian citizens go about their daily lives, they must think that it makes little difference which man sits at the top of the tower and which one plots his downfall.
Elizabeth Villarreal ’16 is a history major in Saybrook College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.