U.S. sanctions imposed on Milorad Dodik last week underscored the shifting views of the Bosnian Serb leader in Western capitals – and the resurgent threat of ethnic tensions in the Balkans.
Dodik was first elected Bosnian Serb leader more than two decades ago, in the wake of peace agreements that ended Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II. He was seen in the west as a figure capable of helping Bosnia – divided between a Serb-controlled entity and another dominated by Croats and Bosnians – move beyond its sectarianism.
But the increasingly nationalist politician portrayed the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords as a vehicle of Western interest. He has been boycotting Bosnia’s institutions since July and wants to end Bosnian Serb co – operation on issues such as defense, taxation and judicial matters. The prospect of what would in effect be a quasi-secretion has given rise to international warnings about the risk of renewed ethnic violence.
Last week, Washington moved to freeze assets linked to Dodik in the US for alleged “destabilizing and corrupt activities” that jeopardize the Bosnian peace process. The EU this week threatened to follow suit with its own punitive measures, condemning “inflammatory rhetoric” during controversial celebrations held on January 9 in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated region.
Dodik, who came closer to rulers including Russian President Vladimir Putin, reacted with defiance.
“If they think they will discipline me, they are making a big mistake,” he told state television RTRS after the US sanctions. “I even have a new motive for fighting for the rights that have been wrestling with us for 26 years.”
The Dayton Agreement Bosnia is divided into the autonomous Republic of Serbia and the Federation, dominated by Croats and Bosnians, with the two linked by a weak central government. Serbs make up about 1.3 million of Bosnia’s 3.3 million people. International oversight has prevented violence for decades, but over time, construction has hardened ethnic divisions exploited by leaders like Dodik, analysts say.
Dodik’s threats also came after Valentin Inzko, Bosnia’s international high-ranking official, genocide denial ban in July, just before leaving his office. The High Representative’s office was created in the Dayton Accords to maintain peace and develop democratic institutions.
Haris Silajdzic, former Bosnian prime minister and president who helped mediate the agreements, believes Dodik wants the Serbian Republic to deprive the national government of public lands and property.
“They are looking for… To get the resources of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Silajdzic said.
Valery Perry, a senior associate of the Sarajevo-based Democratization Policy Council, said there was a serious risk of corruption. “It is worrying that the international community has not pushed back against this,” she said.
Dodik did not respond to requests for comment.
Majda Ruge, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, called Dodik’s secession movement a “desperate escalation”, adding that tax separation alone would cost the Serbian Republic an annual $ 360 million in lost budget revenue, compared to gross domestic product of $ 7 billion.
Elections are due to take place in Bosnia in October. The opposition in the Serbian Republic says its gains encourage Dodik to fight over issues such as identity.
“Dodik is a good bluffer,” said Branislav Borenovic, chairman of the opposition PDP party. “He is trying to keep a crisis on the agenda. This is the only way for him to stay in power. He has no real answers to the economic challenges, the pandemic, corruption, emigration, the rule of law. “
Borenovic also said the ban on the denial of genocide helped Dodik. “When Inzko imposed this law, he gave [Dodik’s party] “new fuel, a crisis – and they will use it for as long as they can, until the elections if possible,” he said.
Inzko said he was trying to do the right thing, calling Dodik “a man without character” who “is trying to destroy Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
Dodik, said Inzko, “was pro-western, now he mocks the west. He once said [wartime Bosnian Serb leader and convicted war criminal Radovan] Karadzic was a war criminal and had to be delivered to The Hague, now he is glorifying himself “.
Dodik’s threats of secession come as the West fights for influence in the Balkans with Russia and China. Since 2006, Dodik has strengthened ties with Putin, whose main strategic goal in the region is to block further enlargement of the EU and NATO. Dodik visited the Russian leader in December and said Putin had secured his support against the “liberal west”.
However, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has distanced himself from Dodik, even though his own Serbian nationalism has drawn criticism from the West.
“The international community has made thousands of mistakes in Bosnia,” Vucic told the Financial Times in a recent interview in Belgrade. “To take powers and authorities out of the Serbian Republic, not to listen to the people. . . But you have to be 100 percent strict to obey the Dayton peace agreement and the Bosnian constitution. “
Sources in Bosnia and Western diplomats say that while the US move could impose tougher sanctions, the West is also keeping the door open for talks with the Bosnian Serb leader. “This is one of the reasons why we were not as escalating as people want us to be,” said a senior U.S. State Department official.
The ECFR’s Ruge said she was optimistic that a united Western response could force Dodik to change course on secession. “It can be prevented,” she said, “if all major western capitals come on the same page.”