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Is Bosnia’s Milorad Dodik using genocide denial for political ends?

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By Aleksandar Brezar
Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia Milorad Dodik
Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia Milorad Dodik   -   Copyright  Credit AP
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Imagine when genocide denial and the glorification of war criminals gets so bad that you need a foreign peace envoy to circumvent institutions and pass a law banning the practice.

Well, that is what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina last week when the country's High Representative Valentin Inzko invoked his executive powers to unilaterally pass the nation's first law prohibiting genocide denial.

It is linked to Bosnia's 1992-1995 war, which saw the killing and torture of the country’s Bosniak community for their perceived Muslim background. The conflict was also the scene of the first genocide in Europe since World War II when 8,000 Bosniaks were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica.

Inzko's unprecedented move is seen as a bid to counter attempts by some Bosnian Serbs to deny the significance of Srebrenica.

Who is Valentin Inzko?

After the war, Bosnia became home to a dizzyingly complex political system -- one of the most intricate in Europe, meant to equally distribute power between its ethnic groups.

It is divided into two entities or subnational units, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Each entity has its own assembly and government, overseen by a state-level parliament and council of ministers.

It also has a three-member presidency with a representative from each of the three ethnic groups.

The highly ethnicised system became a breeding ground for nationalist sentiments, as politicians vie for power by claiming to defend the interests of one ethnicity -- Bosniak, Serb or Croat -- over the other.

The position of High Representative was created in order to ensure peace immediately after the war.

Credit: AP
The two entities of Bosnia and HerzegovinaCredit: AP

An international civilian mediator would maintain order by adopting laws when domestic politicians were unable or unwilling to, or remove politicians considered destructive to Bosnia’s system.

Inzko held this office for 12 years. With a handful of days left in his mandate, he decided to use his supra-institutional powers in a way that will shape Bosnia’s future for many years to come.

“Honestly, I did it because for the dignity of the killed boys and men in Srebrenica,” Inzko told Euronews.

“I did it because it is a part of the global and European civilisational values.”

Inzko’s mandate to make such decisions is set out in the Bonn Powers, the provisions granted to him and previous representatives in 1997 by the Peace Implementation Council or PIC, a body consisting of 55 countries and institutions supporting the peace process in the country.

The High Representative reports to the PIC’s Steering Board as well as the UN Security Council on a six-month basis.

The last time the Bonn Powers were used was in 2012 - since there was an unspoken agreement by the international community that they should grant local politicians and the country more agency in dealing with its problems.

“As for the Bonn Powers, I can only say that some local actors, admirers of war criminals, have in a way activated them,” Inzko told Euronews.

“Too much space and time was given to domestic actors and maybe we have given up our role too abruptly instead of gradually,” he said.

What prompted the genocide denial law?

Inzko said the catalyst was Radovan Karadžić's 2019 conviction for genocide. Karadžić was the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the war period.

Then, in June, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) upheld the genocide conviction against Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić. The Army of the Republika Srpska that he led executed more than 8,000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica in July 1995.

“Immediately when the final verdict for Karadžić was published in March 2019 I started the process, first in the UN Security Council,” Inzko said.

“I had to wait for the final verdict in the case of war criminal Ratko Mladić, which was delivered on June 8, 2021.”

Who is Milorad Dodik?

Milorad Dodik, who is the Serb member of Bosnia's three-way presidency, is a regular denier of the scale and nature of the Srebrenica genocide.

He rejected the Mladić verdict as “not having much to do with justice” and called Mladić a “legend.” He has also defended Karadžić’s role during the war as a witness in his trial at the ICTY and famously inaugurated a dormitory in the town of Pale named after him in 2016.

“In less than one month, on July 6, I informed the Peace Implementation Council about my readiness and intention to impose a law banning denial of genocide and glorification of convicted war criminals,” Inzko said.

Immediately after the High Representative’s decision was made public, Dodik held a press conference calling for “the entire Republika Srpska to gather to defend itself”.

“This is a key moment for [Serb] people to either survive… or quickly lose our chance at existing in this part of the world,” Dodik said on Friday.

A key ploy used by nationalist politicians in the Balkans, but also elsewhere, is to claim that any criticism of the actions committed by individuals is actually veiled attempts at making a collective charge against an entire ethnic group or nation.

This rhetoric is particularly potent when combined with misinformation and propaganda that diminishes the facts around an event -- such as the countless stories claiming the genocide in Srebrenica was faked -- and people start believing that the other side hates them as a nation.

Yet Inzko was not phased by this.

“I am deeply convinced that this is good for the future of the country,” he said. “It should also be clear that there are no bad people, there is no collective guilt. The guilt is individual.”

In an interview for Euronews Serbia in June, Dodik rejected the Office of the High Representative as “a synonym for lawlessness, a destruction of international law.”

Dodik claimed it was a “self-named body… that disrespected the constitutional order of the country”.

Bosnia’s answer to Alexander Lukashenko?

Interestingly, Dodik’s initial rise to prominence was as a moderate running in Bosnia’s first multi-party elections held in the formerly communist party run Yugoslavia.

His first major position was a stint as mayor of his provincial hometown of Laktaši in 1986. The town was a strongly agricultural community, and Dodik has often mentioned that he won a tractor-driving competition when he was young.

Later, when his autocratic and nationalist rhetoric came to the fore -- including his affinity for driving tractors and other large vehicles -- pundits began calling him “Laktašenko,” a tongue-in-cheek nickname that is a portmanteau of his hometown and the name of another tractor-loving autocrat, Alexander Lukashenko.

Back in 1990, Dodik was next elected to the Bosnian parliament as a candidate of the Reformist Party, a left-leaning movement that attempted to unify voters across ethnic backgrounds at a time of rising nationalism right before the breakup of Yugoslavia.

In 1992 war broke out in Bosnia after it declared independence from Yugoslavia. Bosnian Serbs, led by Karadžić and his Serb Democratic Party or SDS, declared their own parastate within Bosnia with the backing from neighbouring Serbia. Dodik became an MP in the Bosnian Serb assembly as part of the opposition to SDS.

The war ended with an internationally brokered peace deal in November 1995, with almost 100,000 people killed, 40 per cent of which were civilians.

After the war, Dodik presented himself as a social-democrat aspiring to see Bosnia enter the European Union and NATO. He vocally rejected the legacy of Karadžić and Mladić as war criminals and was one of the first Bosnian Serb politicians to acknowledge that the bloodbath in Srebrenica was indeed a genocide.

It was around this time that former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously called him “a breath of fresh air in the Balkans”.

But Dodik quickly realised that what it takes to win elections in Bosnia is to follow a more ethnonationalist routine -- so he picked up the talking points of his wartime political opponents.

Dodik was also a businessman during the 1990s. He set up his own company in 1991, called Igokea, which initially produced furniture. In 1992, the company expanded their activities to trading with petroleum derivatives, cigarettes, coffee and alcohol, items that became increasingly scarce and were rationed as the war carried on.

During the war, those who hold any sort of political power or investment capability can control the import or smuggling of key commodities not produced locally. This is where the term “war profiteering” comes from, and why oftentimes political leaders come out of a conflict significantly richer than when it started.

Not Dodik. He was heavily in debt in 1995. In 1998 he became the Prime Minister of the entity of Republika Srpska after divisions appeared among the nationalist bloc.

Immediately after coming to power, he charged the state for cigarettes that were confiscated from him during the war as a way of recouping some of his losses.

While he did not switch to ultranationalism overnight, it became apparent that his business affairs would be threatened if he continued to vouch for liberal values which usually include transparency and a functioning judiciary that could keep a close eye on his business activities.

“I don’t think he’s much of an exception when it comes to the leaders in the region, where the ideology itself means little to nothing at all,” said Srđan Blagovčanin, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Transparency International in Bosnia.

“The only important thing is to protect and preserve power and the unlimited access to privileges, including sources of financial power,” Blagovčanin explains.

Nationalism instead of progress?

Today’s Dodik uses nationalist rhetoric to keep the public and his voters focused on a seemingly crucial issue of identity -- while the poor living conditions in the entity he dominates rarely get addressed.

“The nationalist talk is a way to distract from the horrendous state of affairs in the RS and Bosnia as a whole, both in economic and social terms,” he said.

Besides being a nationalist and profit-hungry businessman, Dodik is also Bosnia’s most famous gaffe generator.

In 2019, outlets in Bosnia reported that Dodik met a man claiming to be a Vietnamese billionaire ready to invest his wealth in the Republika Srpska.

Mai Vu Minh turned out to be an online scammer with €2,500 to his name who photoshopped himself into pictures with world leaders like former US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Dodik evaded the resulting media fallout by never commenting on the issue.

In 2020 during a visit by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov Dodik gifted him an Orthodox Christian icon gilded in gold. The lavish gift sparked the interest of the local press, who realised that the icon had a peculiar seal on its back -- a seal that showed it was an extraordinarily valuable 18th-century icon that had disappeared from the Donbas region in Ukraine during the conflict in the area.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Bosnia reacted swiftly asking for the valuable icon to be returned on the basis that it was part of the country’s heritage. Local outlets speculated that the icon had gotten to Dodik via volunteer fighters on the separatist side, which at one point also included Bosnian citizens from the Republika Srpska entity. It is said to be 300 years old, while its value is estimated to be around €12 million.

Dodik claimed it was a family heirloom worth about €100, rejecting the Ukrainian allegations and calling both the country’s ambassador and the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, liars.

Lavrov returned the icon to Bosnia, while the Ukrainian MFA requested an investigation from Interpol in what was Bosnia’s biggest international scandal in decades. Around that time, Dodik was hospitalised while claiming to be recovering from COVID-19, and the scandal was forgotten. Half a year later, the state prosecutor’s office is still allegedly investigating the case.

“A lot of the scandals that he was connected to, from the privatisation of the oil industry to the construction of the entity-level government building to the highways, the purchase of his house,” Blagovčanin explains, “these stories are usually in the public for some two-three months, but there’s usually no institutional response.”

“Simply, another scandal appears and the old one gets forgotten,” Blagovčanin concludes.

The war against journalists

It was journalists who did the most damage to Dodik’s image over the years. In turn, Dodik has treated them as the enemy, verbally abusing a number of journalists since he came to power. He is particularly aggressive towards women journalists.

In 2008, at a high-level meeting in Prud he responded to a question by FTV reporter Arijana Saračević-Helać with “I don’t give a f***.” In a separate statement, he made further indecent comments about her appearance.

Dodik attacked investigative outlet Žurnal’s Ljiljana Kovačević in 2012 at a press conference he was holding with the then-minister of foreign affairs of Serbia, Ivica Dačić. Kovačević asked Dačić a question when Dodik interrupted him and yelled at Kovačević to “get lost.”

In 2015, he banned the Sarajevo-based daily newspaper, Oslobođenje, from being purchased by any of the RS institutions, and then verbally abused its Banjaluka correspondent, Gordana Katana, calling her work “a morbid play”. He again attacked Katana at a later point, deeming her “a liar who shamelessly lies in all of her articles”.

“Journalists are a sort of a dead weight to him. And the way he sees journalists is the best illustration of how he sees the society at large: completely lacking freedom, pluralism and dialogue,” said Amer Bahtijar, co-editor of the Mostar-based online outlet, Tačno.net.

But, he keeps winning elections, and that’s very indicative of the power he has to make all of his scandals go away, Bahtijar thinks.

“He has been the target of domestic investigative journalists for more than 12 years. He was involved in so many scandals, that if Bosnia had a fully independent prosecutor’s office, he would have been indicted and convicted many times over. But he still managed to come out unscathed.”

Accusations of his influence on the country's judiciary increased when Dodik openly stated that he was wiretapping the opposition in May 2020. Although Transparency International filed a complaint with the state-level prosecutor's office, nothing followed.

How long will Dodik last?

Dodik is still nowhere near to losing power, Bahtijar believes, and there are a couple of things that need to coincide for that to happen.

First, he would need to lose the support of one of the key PIC members, Russia, who see him as a useful tool in creating trouble in Europe and the region. “Ukraine is of real geopolitical interest to Russia. The Republika Srpska isn’t,” Bahtijar illustrates.

“At the same time, he is perfectly content with being a ‘Russian asset,’” he said, “because boasting with something like support from Russia strengthens his position at home. So, both sides are content with that.”

Having the Kremlin as an ally also guarantees protection from any desire of the international community to remove him from office, through a High Representative decision or otherwise.

“The consensus would have been possible back in the days of Yeltsin. With Putin in power in Russia, and a lack of agreement within the European Union, I don’t see it being feasible,” Bahtijar explains. “The only true question is whether the fact that he sees himself as a competitor with Serbia’s Vučić for the title of the ‘supreme lord of Serbs’ will force the two into a political face-off.”

Over the years, Dodik has made sure that everyone knows of his good relations with Russia, publicly bragging about a leather jacket he got as a gift from the infamous Russian motorcycle gang, Night Wolves, or getting behind a wheel of a Belarus-made bus for a photo-op during his official visit to the country in 2019.

But the recent ramping up on public genocide denial means that he has taken things one step further, says Banjaluka-based journalist Dragan Bursać.

“In the RS, you see that there is a truly new generation of young ultranationalists coming to power,” Bursać said.

“Dodik comes from the generation of tycoons who want to be ultranationalists. He did his math and he knows what’s on the horizon, and it’s clear that without a strong pledge to nationalist beliefs he has no chance in the 2022 elections. This is how he got from the position of an open nationalist to his role of the loudest genocide denier in Europe,” he explains.

The Srebrenica genocide is the most present issue in the Bosnian society today, which makes it an obvious target for proving one’s nationalist mettle. But decades of fervent nationalism do come at a cost, Bursać thinks. His days might be numbered, after all.

“Genocide should not be reduced to navel-gazing, where someone is supposed to ponder on whether it took place or not. It was proven that it took place, the verdicts are all there,” Bursać said.

Although he currently serves as a member of the state-level Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dodik is the most powerful political figure in the entity of the RS, where his party SNSD has a comfortable majority together with its allies.

“But your average person who lives in the Republika Srpska used to see Dodik as a saviour. However, that has changed. Dodik is no longer the saviour, while the ultranationalist sentiments still abound. So you could say that there’s a contest for the new Milorad Dodik.”

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