Serbian nationalist lights match in Bosnian powder keg
BANJA LUKA, Bosnia and Herzegovina – When the Bosnian Medicines Agency inspected oxygen sold to hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients in the Serbian-controlled region of the country in September, it made a shocking discovery: oxygen was intended for use only in industrial machinery, not on humans.
But rather than try to correct the situation, the region’s leader, Milorad Dodik, a pugnacious Serbian nationalist, instead attempted to tear apart the multi-ethnic fabric of the Bosnian state, a fragile union created in 1995 by US diplomacy over the rubble of war.
First, Mr Dodik announced that he was setting up his own drug agency and removing his stronghold, which covers about half of Bosnia’s territory, from the supervision of central government inspectors.
Since then he has threatened to withdraw from the multi-ethnic Bosnian armed forces and form his own exclusively Serbian army. He also wants to get out of the state fiscal agency, its intelligence services and its judicial system, promising to accelerate what he calls the “peaceful dissolution” of a Bosnian state born out of an agreement of peace forged in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio.
But in a region where the shadow of war is everywhere, many Bosnians fear that the peace may eventually dissolve.
“It will not be peaceful,” warned Sefik Dzaferovic, one of the three presidents of Bosnia, each elected to represent a particular ethnic group.
A patchwork of different peoples and religions, Bosnia has long been a powder keg for greater conflagrations.
It was in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, that a young Serbian nationalist started World War I by assassinating an Austrian archduke in June 1914, and where the seemingly disturbed rants of a Serbian psychiatrist, Radovan Karadzic, foreshadowed a three-year series of bloodshed in the 1990s. These Balkan wars claimed an estimated 140,000 lives, attracted warplanes and NATO troops, and created a wedge between Russia and the West that continues today.
Today, the United States and the European Union, which Bosnia aspires to join, are desperate to prevent the new crisis from escalating into conflict or creating the kind of political instability that Russia could exploit. Russia, which wants to prevent Bosnia from joining the bloc or NATO, is already siding with Mr. Dodik.
Frictions in Bosnia are rooted in the 1995 Dayton peace accord negotiated by the United States. The agreement ended the fighting but created an elaborate and highly dysfunctional political system, with a weak central authority in which different ethnic groups share power. Two of the country’s presidents are Mr. Dodik, who represents the Serbs, and Mr. Dzaferovic, who represents the Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks.
Mr Dodik has been making noise about Serbian secession for over a decade, but never before has caused such a volatile crisis. A report released in October by senior United Nations official in Bosnia, Christian Schmidt of Germany, described the situation as “the greatest existential threat” to the country’s survival since the early 1990s.
Mr Schmidt, in a recent interview, downplayed the risk of a return to bloodshed and said he expected Mr Dodik to drop his threat to form a separate ethnic Serbian army.
Among many Bosnians, however, fear is on the rise again.
When Mr Schmidt met students at a vocational school in Tuzla, a town where different ethnic groups in Bosnia tend to live in rare harmony in mid-December, he was repeatedly asked what he was doing. was doing to prevent a return to war.
One student recalled that his parents had lived through the horror of the 1992-1995 conflict in Bosnia and asked, “Can you promise us that this will not happen again? Another told Mr Schmidt: “I can’t wait to leave this country where the word ‘war’ is used more and more.
A teacher showed a photograph from 1991 that showed a dozen of her male students at the time, all relaxed and happy. A quarter of them, she said, were killed in the fighting which started soon after.
In Europe, the response to Mr. Dodik’s provocations has been mixed. Germany and Britain are discussing sanctions. But Hungarian authoritarian leader Viktor Orban recently visited the capital of the Serbian region, Banja Luka, to offer his support to Mr Dodik and pledged to veto any European Union initiative aimed at to impose sanctions.
Under the Dayton settlement, Bosnia is divided into two largely self-governing parts: Mr. Dodik’s Serbian territory, known as Republika Srpska, and a federation controlled by ethnic Bosnians and Croats. The federation, in turn, is divided into 10 “cantons”, each with its own government.
Many Bosnians see Mr. Dodik’s disruptive actions as proof that the Bosnian Serbs should never have been allowed by the Dayton agreement to retain their own domain, an entity run by men like Mr. Karadzic and the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, who have since been convicted of genocide in The Hague for the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995 and other atrocities.
But Mr. Dodik and many of his fellow Serbs still deny war crimes committed by ethnic family members and instead see themselves as victims, as they did during the war. They now claim that the Bosnian Serbs are being unfairly harassed, after a decision taken in July by Mr Schmidt’s predecessor as a UN envoy that banned genocide denial. The ban applies to all ethnic groups, but many Bosnian Serbs see it as a target for them.
Mirko Sarovic, the leader of a Serbian political party opposed to Mr. Dodik, denounced the ban as a “huge mistake”. In an interview, he said this had emboldened warring nationalists, bolstered the previously waning public support for Mr Dodik and encouraged him to embark on a “reckless adventure” which “has no chance of success and has enormous potential to provoke conflict “.
Mr. Dodik is a former US protege whom the Clinton administration hailed in 1998 as a “breath of fresh air”. Now, President Biden’s special envoy to the region, Gabriel Escobar, calls him a threat that “cuts the heart, strikes the heart of Dayton.”
In October, Dodik warned that the Bosnian Serbs “would defend themselves with our forces if necessary” and said “our friends” – namely Russia and neighboring Serbia – could be counted on to repel any efforts to master it by NATO. Alliance.
Understanding Russia’s Relations with the West
The tension between the regions is increasing and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his demands.
Serbia, however, showed no interest in repeating its role in the 1990s, when it sent paramilitary weapons and gangs to support members of the ethnic family in Bosnia. And it is not clear how much Russia really supports Mr Dodik.
Last month, he returned from a visit to Moscow claiming to have received pledges of support during a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin. But the Kremlin, which usually announces meetings well in advance, waited days before confirming that this had happened. Then he put the Serbian leader in his place, saying that Mr. Putin’s “main event” that day had been a “coal conference”, not Mr. Dodik.
Yet the Kremlin clearly rejoices to see Bosnia in disarray, given that the United States and Europe have once championed it as a showcase for successful nation-building. For years, Mr Putin has warned the former communist lands of Eastern Europe that Western promises of peace and prosperity are in vain.
The big question is whether Mr Dodik’s threats are real or are mainly political theater to rally his nationalist base ahead of the October elections.
“He probably doesn’t really know himself where this is all leading,” said UN envoy Schmidt, adding that he was on a “dangerous and slippery road”.
Dodik has said privately, diplomats say, that his main interest is to keep state prosecutors out of his purview in order to eliminate the risk that credible reports of rampant corruption will come under scrutiny. serious investigation – including the industrial oxygen scandal for Covid patients.
The Bosnian health investigator traced these shipments to a company based in Mr Dodik’s hometown of Laktasi and controlled by a close political ally.
“Everything is a political game, and politics in Bosnia is just a smokescreen to cover up crime,” said Aleksandar Zolak, head of the drug agency, in an interview. “Dodik knows that he can only be exposed by independent institutions and people who speak the truth, he does all he can to destroy them. “
Mr. Dodik, however, took the opportunity to cripple the central government. The three presidents are supposed to meet every two weeks to approve key proposals. But they haven’t met since October, when Mr Dodik showed up with an accordion and started singing Serbian folk songs in his office with a group of supporters.
Since then, he has rejected or ignored all proposals submitted to him and his fellow presidents.
“Dodik survives thanks to the conflict,” said Branislav Borenovic, leader of a Serbian opposition party. “He hates stability because he then has to explain why we live the way we do,” he said, adding that Mr. Dodik “plays on the emotions of his people and doesn’t care about the consequences.”
Even though Mr. Dodik is only playing politics, said Mr. Borenovic, his antics raise passions to a dangerous point: “In a country of three million people, you can always find a few idiots to turn on the fire. fire.