Mirsad Hadzikadic, director of the Complex Systems Institute at UNC Charlotte’s College of Computing and Informatics (CCI), is seeking the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A proud and loyal Bosnian citizen, he wants his country to unite, to stand on its own and, eventually to be welcomed into the European Union (EU) and NATO.
Fierce patriotism aside, even Hadzikadic had moments spent questioning if such a drastic step is the right move at this time in his life.
“My position at UNC Charlotte is exciting and fits very well with my varied interests. We started many new initiatives in Data Science and it will be hard to leave the program, at least temporarily, without seeing these initiatives fully completed,” he said. “However, my country is in dire need of help. It is about to disintegrate under the pressure from nationalistic forces. After careful deliberation and conversations with family, friends, and colleagues, I decided to embrace the nagging voice inside me that kept suggesting that it is my duty and responsibility to help my country.”
Politics in the Balkans has a sordid history of corruption and even violence. Hadzikadic is well aware of the maelstrom into which he’s stepping, but admits he won’t know how bad it really is until he is living it, every day.
“My family is probably more nervous than I am. But, I do think about it. In Serbia, they assassinated their prime minister,” he stated. “Every time I unlock the front door of the building where my condo is in Sarajevo, I worry if there is someone waiting for me in the darkness of the hallway. And, it will get worse over time. I think it is the threat of violence, whether any harm actually ever comes my way, that will keep me on my toes. However, this is the price one must be ready to pay if he or she is ready to help the country.”
Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark, a 2004 Democratic candidate for U.S. president, said Hadzikadic will be safe but must be mindful that Bosnia and Herzegovina is in a conflict zone and particularly vulnerable to outside influence.
"I don't think it is excessively dangerous at this point for him to run," Clark stated. "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is pushing to disrupt Europe, the EU and NATO. Russia moves with money, business entanglements, blackmail and extortion, military assistance, friendly visits, education, social, fraternal and athletic events, and so on. The Republika Srbska [one of two constitutional and legal entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina] is a very convenient weapon for this purpose."
Soeren Keil, from Canterbury Christ Church University School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology and author of “State-Building and Democratization in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” believes the biggest threat to Hadzikadic will not be physical but will come in the form of a calculated character assassination.
“[Hadzikadic] should expect a lot of criticism from the other parties, their candidates and media affiliations, especially if [he] does not play the ethnic card,” Keil warned. “He could easily (be) labeled a traitor or foreign agent.”
Hadzikadic stated, “I fully expect a very dirty character assassination, but won’t know how it feels until it happens. I have no problem addressing or defending anything I have done personally or professionally. The problem is when the attacks are based in fiction. I expect there will be ‘witnesses’ to things that never happened. I cannot argue against fiction and, frankly, those who want to believe what they hear, whether it is true or not, are going to believe it no matter what I say.”
Because Hadzikadic has lived in the United States since 1984, he knows he will be criticized as an outsider, a danger to Bosnian ideals and culture.
“They will say, ‘You were not here for the war.’ It won’t matter that I was there for 30 years,” he said. “Some will say that I do not know my country, its people, its needs.”
Painting Hadzikadic as an out-of-touch interloper, who is more American than Bosnian, is expected in a region where elections are won on “us versus them” platforms of division.
“Dividing a population allows those in power to campaign on fear, a fear of those who are different. [Politicians will] claim to be nationalists, but they are really just opportunists, stoking cultural, religious and societal anxiety and uncertainty for their own gain. And it has worked,” said Hadzikadic.
“For many,” Keil said, “politics is a way to get access to resources. The rules of democratic decision-making and transparency are often ignored, and there is a strong connection between political and business elites. Hence, politics becomes a business opportunity, and it becomes a way to capture the state.”
Clark, a frequent commentator for CNN and author of the best-selling, “Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat,” agreed that the only path to success, if elected, is an unwavering anti-corruption commitment.
"People must live on their government salaries, which means, no gifts, no on-the-side business ventures and no favors for relatives," Clark said. "This is incredibly difficult to establish, and even more difficult to enforce, but it must be done. The alternative is to live in a Fascist or Mafioso state with decision makers and administrators taking actions to benefit themselves or other groups rather than making decisions for the common good in accordance with established law and announced policies."
Hadzikadic is cognizant of the corrosive nature of political activity in his country.
“Fear-based, corrupt politics is rampant. It is a criminal enterprise, in fact. People in power are getting money, benefitting politically and personally,” he said. “Staying in power is the most important thing in their lives and they will stop at nothing to stay there.
“I like to think I am not corruptible. I do not know how to steal. I am not comfortable leveraging influence. And I have no interest in learning to do so,” he added.
Sasha Toperich, director of the Mediterranean Basin, Middle East and Gulf Initiative at the Center for Transatlantic Relations and author of “Vision 2020 Bosnia and Herzegovina: Towards its European Future,” believes the Bosnian people are eager for a shift away from the divisive politics of its recent past.
“Most of the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina would welcome new faces, especially ex-patriots coming from the U.S.,” said Toperich.
Hadzikadic also believes the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are tired of the nationalistic rhetoric that “brought them only misery, corruption, unemployment and fear in the past 23 years since the war ended. But, the center, center-left, and left parties are divided in terms of their approach to the best course of action for the necessary improvements in the country.”
As such, Hadzikadic is running as an independent, moderate candidate instead of accepting a nomination from an existing political party. “I believe that it is the time to reform the parties at the center and on the left, and unify them through the key elements of my platform.
“We are all better when we put those old differences aside and come together as Bosnians,” he says. “We need to stop fighting amongst ourselves. It is counterproductive. I want to put true nationalism ahead of what divides us. One of the three slogans I am using is, ‘Bosnia First.’”
Keil thinks the time is right for a moderate, unaffiliated candidate to gain traction.
“While both the electoral rules and the overall ethnic division of the country favor nationalist and polarizing candidates, there is some evidence that moderate candidates can win as well,” he said.
“While it is generally more difficult for non-nationalists to get elected,” Keil admitted, “it is not impossible. There is a substantial number of voters in Bosnia that do not want to continue the ethnic blame game anymore, and are willing to support alternative candidates.”
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s presidency is a triumvirate, elected by plurality. Winning one of the three seats will require Hadzikadic to generate support from a number of disparate parties and tribes. To do so, he is delivering a message of hope and collaboration, of joint interests and the advantages of diversity.
“I am showing examples of why it is in our interest, as Bosnians, to work together and make the country more functional. Basically, the argument is that the more functional the country is, the more successful each individual will be,” he said. “This includes jobs, justice, fairness, development, culture, arts, etc. It is in this improved environment that each ethnic and religious group will find it easier to express their identities. Right now, there are indications that my message is working and that people are responding positively to it. This is evident in social media responses and personal contacts on the streets of Sarajevo.”
Being elected is just the first step. Once in office, fixing the Bosnian economy will be Hadzikadic's biggest challenge.
"As president, [Hadzikadic] will need to establish a good climate for foreign direct investment, including tourism. Real estate and hotels always come first and ecotourism is a real possibility - provided there are no land mines," Clark stated - speaking literally, not metaphorically.
"Attracting foreign investors," Hadzikadic said, "will not happen without eliminating the rampant corruption corroding all segments of the society. The only way to deal with corruption is to ensure the rule of law throughout the whole country. It is only then that Bosnia can attract investments and start working on tax reforms to support entrepreneurs and small businesses.
“Once we get the economy going, we will stop the outflow of young people looking for jobs elsewhere in the European Union. This will encourage a new breed of politicians more willing to cooperate to sustain and enhance economic growth.
“The goal of joining the EU, and even NATO, is one thing almost everyone agrees on. But how to do so is a point of great conflict. Some in power would like to divide and essentially eliminate what we know as Bosnia and gain entrance as separate lands. Bosnian Serbs would like to join as Serbians, and Bosnian Croats want to join as Croatians, already in the EU.
“Division and dissolution is not the answer. We will be much better off once we put our differences aside, embrace our diversity as a strength, and put Bosnia first,” he stated.
To be successful, Hadzikadic said he could lean on a number of lessons learned from the United States and at UNC Charlotte.
“The U.S. taught me the value of democracy, a free press, freedom of expression and the power of individuals,” he said. “And UNC Charlotte provided the best example of a growing public university that makes a huge contribution to the economic development of the region, understands the importance of accessibility of all people to a quality university education and promotes the research that opens the door of a better future for the whole society. These things have shaped my way of thinking and will definitely influence my candidacy and possible presidency.”
Although his sights are clearly set on the future, his own and that of his beloved Bosnia, Hadzikadic has taken time to reflect on how much UNC Charlotte and CCI have grown during his tenure.
“I am proud that both CCI and DSI are now poised to take a leadership position at national and international levels. Our programs have been designed to establish a new standard. They are flexible, interdisciplinary, diverse and open to new ideas and possibilities,” he said. “We are beginning to position our curriculum as solutions-based. People want to make a difference and will gravitate toward issues that are important to them, from the environment and health care to ethics and ecology, smart cities, etc. Instead of putting the technology first, out front, we are building our curriculum around themes and then using technology as a tool to address real-world issues.
“I firmly believe that UNC Charlotte and CCI will be research powerhouses in 10 years. They will be leaders of both novel approaches to higher education and technological advancements that will change the world for the better. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in setting the stage for a glorious future at UNC Charlotte and CCI.”
As he answers the call to better his homeland, Hadzikadic stated he will miss the wonderful people of UNC Charlotte, the Piedmont region, and the state of North Carolina.
“I have made so many friends here, both American and international. I feel at home here. I have lived in the U.S. longer than I have in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he said. “I am truly a product of two cultures. I just want to be the best ambassador for both.”
Hadzikadic stated he would miss the Dallas Cowboys and March Madness, as well as the diversity of food, cultures and people in the United States - and the convenience of living in a functioning society where one takes for granted the luxury of complaining about a service technician being an hour late to fix the home Wi-Fi.