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The President Who Wants to Break Up His Own Country (Bosnia)

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The President Who Wants to Break Up His Own Country

Once praised by Madeleine Albright as “a breath of fresh air,” Bosnia’s new president, Milorad Dodik, now threatens a fragile U.S.-brokered peace accord.

Maxim Edwards Jan 2, 2019
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People walk by a Dodik campaign billboard in Banja Luka in September.Dado Ruvic / Reuters
SARAJEVO—Few national leaders would call their own country an “impossible state.” Fewer still would actively advocate for it to be broken up. Almost none would risk a decades-old peace accord to do so. And then there is Bosnia’s Milorad Dodik.

“I am a Serb ... Bosnia is only my place of employment,” Dodik proclaimed just a day after his inauguration as Bosnia’s head of state. A Serb nationalist, he has publicly called for the statelet he comes from, Republika Srpska, to break away from Bosnia. And, as Bosnian president, he has said he will not use his Bosnian passport for overseas travel. It’s these kinds of outbursts—almost Trumpian in their ability to provoke—for which he has become notorious.

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The story of Dodik’s rise is one of a far cannier political operator than his brash public image might suggest. He was once hailed as a “breath of fresh air” by Madeleine Albright; she, like others, hoped he symbolized a clean break from the war criminals who had ruled the territory. Two decades on, though, he is seen as a nationalist enfant terrible threatening a fragile peace. What changed, and how?

In some ways, Dodik’s story is a familiar one, that of a politician changing his stripes when the moment suits, and courting Russia as an ally. But here in Bosnia, the stakes are higher, not just for the people who live here, but for the legacy of a significant American foreign-policy achievement, too. By taking aim at the Bosnian state, Dodik is, in effect, targeting the Dayton Accords, one of the signature peace deals of the 20th century. When signed at an American air base in 1995, the agreement ended what had been Europe’s most devastating conflict since the Second World War, one which had cost more than 100,000 lives. (Unsurprisingly, Dodik’s threats to undermine the accords have earned him U.S. sanctions.)


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Read: Has international intervention helped or hurt Bosnia?

The Dayton Accords left all sides dissatisfied and nurturing grievances, but brokered a brittle peace. In the process, they shaped modern Bosnia—the country’s entire constitution is an annex of the document—by cleaving it into two ethnically based “entities” of roughly equal size. These are the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, home predominantly to Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats, and the Bosnian Serb–dominated Republika Srpska. Both entities have their own president, their own prime minister, and the trappings of extensive autonomy, with a weak central government in the federal capital Sarajevo presiding over them. There is no hard border, but Bosnia’s various communities largely live separate lives.

Besides the country’s presidency, Dodik has also for the past eight years led Republika Srpska, which encompasses much of the country’s north and east (Republika Srpska should not be confused with Serbia, a separate country with whom its people share ethnic, linguistic, and religious commonalities). He appears to have grand designs for the territory: like many Bosnian Serbs, Dodik views Republika Srpska as a state-in-waiting, whose full sovereignty is stymied only by the Dayton Accords, which clearly forbid its often postponed secession from Bosnia.

In October, Bosnians elected three members of the country’s presidency, each representing its main ethnic groups; the chairmanship of the presidency rotates between the trio. For the next eight months, it’s Dodik’s turn in the driver’s seat, and he has started in predictably inflammatory style. Before his inauguration in November, Dodik brought the flag of Republika Srpska to Sarajevo, where he planted it outside his new office in the presidency building. The act seemed calculated to spark anger, given that Republika Srpska has flirted with secession more than once. Politicians from the Bosniak and Croat communities demanded that the flag be removed. Dodik not only stood firm but upped the ante: If Republika Srpska’s flag was not displayed in the building, he said, he would refuse to hold presidency sessions.

Beyond that bellicosity, Dodik is taking legislative steps to further his cause, too. A new reform package consolidates even more powers in Republika Srpska’s hands. For example, the statelet might get its own intelligence service alongside its burgeoning, militarized police force.

Banja Luka, a Serb city in northern Bosnia, flaunts its alter ego as the capital of this state-in-waiting. The red, blue, and white flag of Republika Srpska is ubiquitous here; few Bosnian flags grace its streets, and the city’s museum and theater are proudly prefixed with the word national.

“Many young people in Republika Srpska today have no conception of any other political reality,” remarks Miloš Šolaja, a political-science professor at the University of Banja Luka, adding that some of his students had never even been to Sarajevo. “This mental geography is very strong; it’s as if there’s an iron curtain in the brain.”

This part of what is now northern Bosnia is where Dodik cut his teeth; he grew up in Laktaši, a town of 35,000 just north of Banja Luka. He played for the local basketball team and went on to lead the municipality during the twilight of socialist Yugoslavia. Locals are proud of their prodigal son. “He protects Republika Srpska,” said a resident, Branka Trninić, at a bus stop. “I admire his energy and resolve.”

“Dodik is the only politician I remember seeing on billboards as a kid, and whose face remains on them today,” says Ljupko Mišeljić, a 22-year-old student. That longevity may be thanks to Dodik’s capacity for reinvention.

He first came to power as Republika Srpska’s prime minister in 1998, in opposition to the war criminals then holding sway over the territory. In subsequent years, Dodik had some success in cleaning up Republika Srpska’s image, offering to cooperate with war crimes tribunals and hand over war criminals.

“Milorad Dodik was indeed a breath of fresh air,” says Valentin Inzko, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, speaking in his office in Sarajevo and referencing Albright’s characterization. Inzko and his team are tasked by the international community with ensuring adherence to the Dayton Accords and that Bosnia does not descend again into violence.

But before long, the Serb’s stance was changing. “Dodik has said ... publicly that when he used moderate, constructive speech, nobody supported him, that he switched because in order to gain votes, you have to use ethnic, nationalist rhetoric,” Inzko told me. “In a way, he was right: Since then, he has won every election.”

By 2013, Dodik was defending Radovan Karadžić, a former leader of Republika Srpska who was found guilty by an international tribunal of committing genocide at Srebrenica, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were killed. When a new student dormitory in the town of Pale was named in honor of Karadžić in 2016, Dodik unveiled the plaque bearing Karadžić’s name. The Bosnian leader has also frequently clashed with Inzko and his predecessors. (Neither the office of the Bosnian presidency nor Dodik’s political party, SNSD, responded to multiple requests for comment.)

Read: Radovan Karadžić’s day of reckoning

Dodik isn’t just fighting battles at home, either. While he supports Bosnia’s bid to join the European Union, he is opposed to the country joining NATO, which decided last month to start a membership action plan for Bosnia. It’s no surprise, then, that Dodik is characterized in the West as pro-Russian, a label he flaunts. In March, he welcomed the Night Wolves, a pro-Kremlin biker group, to Bosnia, and in October even called for Republika Srpska to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. These ties with the Kremlin are becoming more and more formalized: The weekend after bringing his flag to Sarajevo, Dodik headed to St. Petersburg to open Republika Srpska’s trade legation in the city.

Russia’s ties to Dodik need not be such a cause for alarm, argues Dimitar Bechev, the director of the European Policy Institute—a think tank based in Sofia, Bulgaria—and the author of a book about Russia’s role in the Balkans. In an email exchange, Bechev noted that Moscow’s influence over Dodik means the Kremlin also has the ability to restrain him. For now, though, the Bosnian president’s ties to Russia appear to be paying off for him politically, allowing him to show that he has Moscow’s blessing. As a result, there are few serious challengers to the tight control he and his allies have over Republika Srpska today.

Dodik also has Bosnia’s political setup to thank for amplifying his success. Many analysts of Bosnian politics now believe that Dayton may have facilitated the rise of its loudest detractor: By institutionalizing ethnicity on every level of government, Bosnia’s political structure works against politicians who try to appeal across ethnic divides. As one major study of Dodik’s political language put it, his “rhetorical politics is made possible by the unresolved legacy of the Bosnian War.”

The response to one case in particular is instructive. In March, David Dragičević, a 21-year-old man, was found dead in Banja Luka. The local authorities insisted that his death was an accident; Dragičević’s father suspected murder, accusing the police and prosecutor’s office of protecting his son’s killers. A protest movement was born, under the name Pravda za Davida (“Justice for David”), holding daily vigils and railing against an official culture of impunity. But the protests failed to become a real political movement capable of challenging the authorities. Local officials who showed support for the protests said they quickly found themselves demoted after Dodik’s election win in October.

Read: Denying the Bosnia genocide, despite DNA evidence

On Christmas Day, the Bosnian leader’s allies in Banja Luka went on the offensive; police cracked down hard on the protest movement, cordoning off a square in the city center where vigils for Dragičević had been regularly held. Several opposition politicians, journalists, and protest leaders, including Dragičević’s father, were detained. Standoffs between the police and remaining protesters continue.

Some vocal Bosnian Serbs complain of a “siege mentality” eagerly encouraged by the authorities and a pliant local media. “Dodik turned our frustration during the 1990s into conspiracy theories, which paralyze any rational discussion about the country’s current situation,” explains Srdjan Puhalo, a Banja Luka–based psychologist and popular blogger who covered the protests from the start. “Those who want a strong leader vote for him, and those who don’t simply leave.”

Šolaja, the University of Banja Luka professor, says this is not an accidental response to events. “At first I thought [Dodik] was just good at improvising, but now I get the impression that there’s some system [to his provocative statements].”

There certainly is a system: Dodik’s media savviness has blossomed into a multimillion- dollar PR operation. Not only did his party hire two former Trump campaign associates as lobbyists, but the Republika Srpska government has spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying in the United States, reportedly among the highest such figures in Europe. Dodik may well be aiming to bypass international representatives in Bosnia, such as Inzko, and appeal to Washington directly, or he could be trying to remove the American sanctions against him (which the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Bosnia has confirmed will remain).

“This was something Dodik and other Bosnian politicians learned long ago, but was only mentioned in Western politics recently: that elections are won by emotions, not by issues,” says Srećko Latal, a Bosnian political analyst. “For many years, we’ve been told that Bosnia has been falling behind the West,” he adds, “but it’s actually ahead of the curve.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/01/serb-president-dodik-bosnia/579199/
 

Tshering22

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Bosnia & Herzegovina is already teetering in its position; it is one of the tiniest states in the world. What the hell does this Dodik dude want?
 

Deliorman

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Bosnia has no future. It might sound bad but it is true.
A country in a severe demographic and economic crisis where each side hates the other. The War just destroyed everything.

Though all Bosniaks I have met are very nice and humble people and their country has so much beauty in it. Amazing cuisine and traditions but I see no hope for a better life there.
 

Yankee-stani

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Bosnia has no future. It might sound bad but it is true.
A country in a severe demographic and economic crisis where each side hates the other. The War just destroyed everything.

Though all Bosniaks I have met are very nice and humble people and their country has so much beauty in it. Amazing cuisine and traditions but I see no hope for a better life there.

Should stayed as Yugoslavia tbh and Bosnia was a compromise the Bosnaiks and Serbs gained nothing all cause of that retard Slobadan Milosevic
 

vostok

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I hope Yugoslavia will reunite some day in the future. It is the only way for peace at the Balkans.
 

dBSPL

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Unify Kosovo & Albania.
The Balkan region is currently one of the priority areas of enlargement in EU policies. The idea of reconstruction ( and this time fair ) Yugoslavia is therefore not very realistic. In other words, the France-Germany alliance is trying to cut, both Russian and Turkish influence in this region. Therefore, the idea of political unity of Albanians, not enough as a solution.If no-physical border with Turkey, theres no chance of being successful in any type of Balkan league. The greater Albania ideal may sound pleasant., but if you look at the regional equilibrium, we need to see that all these risks can create a new blood bath in the region. There is a very delicate balance and in this balance you cannot ignore either the Serbs or the Macedonians.

The Sandzak region, which is the physical border of Bosniaks and Albanian peoples, is now shared between Montenegro and Serbia. The physical connection between the Albanians of Macedonia and the Turks was left to Bulgaria and Greece which were Western Thrace and Kardzhali region. So between 1910-1920, Balkan Muslim peoples were isolated. Genocide survivors, those who can save their lives, have struggled against ethnic/religous assimilation for many years under the enemy states or despotic administrations. It is one of the biggest sources of embarrassment in the history of Europe.
 
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Horus

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If Albania and Kosovo unite into one viable country, they may as well survive the next genocide being planned by the Serbs.

The Balkan region is currently one of the priority areas of enlargement in EU policies. The idea of reconstruction ( and this time fair ) Yugoslavia is therefore not very realistic. In other words, the France-Germany alliance is trying to cut, both Russian and Turkish influence in this region. Therefore, the idea of political unity of Albanians, not enough as a solution.If no-physical border with Turkey, theres no chance of being successful in any type of Balkan league. The greater Albania ideal may sound pleasant., but if you look at the regional equilibrium, we need to see that all these risks can create a new blood bath in the region. There is a very delicate balance and in this balance you cannot ignore either the Serbs or the Macedonians.

The Sandzak region, which is the physical border of Bosniaks and Albanian peoples, is now shared between Montenegro and Serbia. The physical connection between the Albanians of Macedonia and the Turks was left to Bulgaria and Greece which were Western Thrace and Kardzhali region. So between 1910-1920, Balkan Muslim peoples were isolated. Genocide survivors, those who can save their lives, have struggled against ethnic/religous assimilation for many years under the enemy states or despotic administrations. It is one of the biggest sources of embarrassment in the history of Europe.
 

DejanSRB

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Stupid piece of propaganda crap.

Bosnia is not Milorad Dodik country. Serbs dont see Bosnia as it homeland. It is a fake state based on Islamic domination which Croats and Serbs despise.
Republika Srpska compromises 49% of B&H territory. It is a entity of its own. Bosniaks simply have so big inferiority complex towards Croats and Serbs so they force them to live in such backward state.

It is nice to mention that capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo, dont have a proper water distribution and it is by far the most polluted city in Europe.
Bosniaks science, arts and sport are non existent, every great person from Bosnia is either Serb or Croat and they represent Serbia and Croatia instead of fake country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

So, Bosniak muslims are crying like they always do.
They declare war on Serbs and Croats, they lost it, they barely survived on 23% of territory, then with Arab money and USA political support they survived as a independent country.
It is better for everybody to let Milorad to declare independence of 49% of Serbian part of Bosnia without war, bcoz that part always belong to Serbian cultural sphere, dont have nothing with oriental culture of Bosnia.

We should let alone Croats and Bosniaks to deal with each other but never again on Serbian expenses.

@vostok

No thank you.

It is nice to see that you put in the same basket, Serbs which never ever do some evil to Russian nation with Croats which send legionaries to Eastern Front on Stalingrad, with Bosniaks who dont give a F-ck about Russia, or with Macedonians which blamed you for everything in their country.

Be careful, brother, without Serbia, you dont have any ally left in whole Europe.
 

vostok

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No thank you.

It is nice to see that you put in the same basket, Serbs which never ever do some evil to Russian nation with Croats which send legionaries to Eastern Front on Stalingrad, with Bosniaks who dont give a F-ck about Russia, or with Macedonians which blamed you for everything in their country.

Be careful, brother, without Serbia, you dont have any ally left in whole Europe.
I understand your feelings 100%. But Yugoslavia was a big and strong country. She lived peacefully. Devided Balkans - a short way to war.
 

DejanSRB

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I understand your feelings 100%. But Yugoslavia was a big and strong country. She lived peacefully. Devided Balkans - a short way to war.

Bro, Yugoslavia was piece of shit not a powerful country. You just copy soviet experience of yours into Yugoslavian reality.

There was no single world renowed scientists.
Artists was a western copycats.
Military technology was way behind Bulgarians, they achieved mig 29, five years before Yugoslavia.

Everything was one big downgrade when we compare its to Serbian history in early middle ages or 19th. century.

Serbia is too precious to be wasted with other fake entities like Bosnia or genocidal states like Croatia. We dont have nothing in common with them, we build first europanized country in the Balkans, our parliaments is oldest in this part of globe and we never had a slaves. Something our "yugoslavian brothers" can only dream about.

No, thanks, but no.
 

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