By Zoran Radosavljevic
VELIKA KLADUSA, Bosnia, April x (Reuters) - Five gutted houses and a moth-balled factory are all that remains in this northern Bosnian town to recall Fikret Abdic's dramatic fall from grace. That, and the lingering adoration of the people of Velika Kladusa.
One of the most controversial figures of Bosnia's 1992-95 war, Abdic went from communist to capitalist to warlord and finally convict, jailed for war crimes against fellow Muslims.
He was released last month. That he could now be contemplating a comeback speaks to the enduring appeal of strongmen in the Balkans and the painful lack of progress since the war.
"What we had here was amazing. Fikret did so much for this region and now there is nothing," said 47-year-old Semsa Kendic, one of the region's many unemployed residents.
"He's the only one who can get things going again."
Friday marks 20 years since the war began, killing 100,000 people and displacing 2 million.
Some of those convicted of war crimes have served out their sentences and are returning to life in a country still deeply divided between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.
Now 72, Abdic left jail in the Croatian port city of Pula on March 9 after serving two-thirds of a 15-year sentence. He was greeted by several thousand supporters who had driven the 400 km (250 miles) from Kladusa.
As they danced in the prison carpark and chanted his nickname 'Babo' (Papa), Abdic pledged to return and revive the once-mighty Yugoslav-era food concern he once ran, Agrokomerc.
The claim has stirred hope and controversy in his native region, for Abdic's career epitomized the fickle loyalties and thirst for profit that lurked behind much of the war.
"My father has no personal interest in doing this, but he is the only person these poor people trust," said his daughter, Elvira. "And only someone who has created a major company can run such a company."
In socialist Yugoslavia, Abdic almost single-handedly turned a small local farm into a giant exporter to 43 countries, employing 13,600 people.
Then in 1987, the company was embroiled in a financial scandal over $400 million in worthless promissory notes. The saga rocked the political elite and Abdic was ousted.
He was put on trial, but freed. He returned to Velika Kladusa, took back Agrokomerc and restored production to pre-scandal levels by the time Yugoslavia began to collapse in 1991.
Abdic aligned himself with Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic. But the war took a bizarre twist in 1993 when Abdic broke ranks and set up a breakaway province based around Velika Kladusa.
From there, Abdic earned a reputation as an unsavory war-profiteer, imprisoning opponents and dealing in arms and favors with all sides. The Bosnian Muslim army routed his forces in 1995 and Abdic fled to Croatia, where he was eventually tried.
With Abdic free, his family, steered in his absence by his politician daughter, has set its sights on reclaiming Agrokomerc.
Many in this region are convinced that Abdic can, as one resident remarked, "create something out of nothing" - just as they say he did before, when this backwater became a bustling industrial centre with a global reach.
"He gave us more than our own fathers did," said Muharem Cerimovic, a former manager at Agrokomerc and Abdic loyalist. "Agrokomerc employed everyone, built schools, roads, infrastructure."
The hopes ignore the huge financial and legal challenges that hang over the company, a household name in Yugoslavia that produced the country's own version of Jaffa Cakes.
Abdic has kept a low profile on the Croatian coast since his release but his daughter, Elvira, told Reuters that ambitious plans were afoot.
She declined to elaborate the strategy, other than to say that hundreds, if not thousands of former Agrokomerc employees - many of them now living abroad - had offered to help out.
"GUARDS AT A TOMB"
Bosnia was split at the end of the war into an autonomous Serb Republic and a Federation of mainly Bosniaks and Croats, joined by a weak central state.
The Federation government now owns 90.3 percent of Agrokomerc. Fikret Abdic has filed a lawsuit on behalf of small shareholders who own the rest, saying they were cheated out of the majority ownership they took in the first wave of privatizations launched shortly before Yugoslavia's demise.
The case is now before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and Elvira says she expects a ruling this year.
Federation Industry Minister Erdal Trhulj said any new owner would have to take on Agrokomerc's debt of 130 million Bosnian marka (65 million euros), which has deterred would-be investors.
The Abdic camp says the debt was run up after the war and is therefore irrelevant.
"All the talk about Abdic is based on myth," said Trhulj. "The people are not being realistic. One must have fresh capital to persuade creditors to write off the debt."
Tensions between Abdic loyalists and enemies are palpable.
"The man carries the label of war criminal," said Djeko Bibuljica, a teacher at the local secondary school in Velika Kladusa. Bibuljica says he was held for eight months in a detention camp run by Abdic's troops.
"He is not welcome by the young, by the intellectuals," he said. "He would only revive the antagonism, the trauma that we've been through."
The sprawling Agrokomerc complex, its hangars, silos, farms and processing plants, are now empty, locked-up and largely devastated. Just two security guards stand at the entrance.
"We're like guards of honor at a tomb," one of them remarked. "There's nothing left here."
(Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic in SARAJEVO; editing by Matt Robinson)