Thoughts on Dodik-Land

As those who caused the war in Bosnia are celebrating the „Day of Republika Srpska“ or Dan Republike Srpske on January 9th, this seems an appropriate occasion to take a look at what they are doing to the country again today. A short essay on Dodik-Land that hopefully helps explain the situation in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Somehow, the situation in Višegrad looked better when I passed through there on a bus from Sarajevo late May last year. I wasn‘t under the illusion that it was better.

The war criminals and the open Serb nationalists that dominate the town in Southeastern Bosnia near the Serbian border certainly hadn‘t disappeared.

Neither had Andrićgrad, Emir Kusturica‘s aesthetic and pseudoauthentic monstrosity that appropriated Yugoslav Nobel Prize Laureate Ivo Andrić for the cause of Greater Serbia.

But for a brief moment it looked like as for whatever reason the war criminals may have a bit less of say in town. As much as you can tell from the window of a bus, that is. All the flags around the road had disappeared. Those were the flags of Republika Srpska.

Republika Srpska is the Serb dominated sub-State in Bosnia. Secured by the Dayton Accords that ended the war in 1995, Republika Srpska (RS) had originally been proclaimed on January 9th 1992, in an attempt by political representatives of Bosnia’s ethnic Serbs to prevent Bosnian independence from Yugoslavia, which had at the time only consisted of Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia.

RS’s flag is just a vertically hung Serbian flag, sans Serbian Eagle. This Serbian symbol would look quite silly if turned by 90 degrees.

On my last visit 2018, they had stuck those RS flags pretty much on any spot alongside the main roads in Višegrad they could find. They wouldn’t let you forget that this was Serb territory, not Bosnia.

A flag of Republika Srpska in Višegrad, 2018.

For some reason, these flags were gone along the confusing route the bus took.

Višegrad still doesn’t have a functioning bus station, much like it didn’t in 2018. The bus drops off passengers on several half central spots to fence for themselves. You really have to know your way through town here.

It’s possible that I missed one or two of those RS flags along the way, but I stick to my overall observation: They were less prevalent than they were before. I still can’t make much sense of this. It seems significant nevertheless, and in Višegrad of all places. We’ll get to that soon.

Fast forward to early September 2021. I was interviewing Dragan Bursać in Banja Luka. Banja Luka is the administrative and political center of RS.

Dragan is THE critical journalist in all of Bosnia. No one calls out the ever present nationalists like he does. This is particularly true when they happen to be Serb nationalists. They are by far the loudest and the nastiest. And isn’t as though Bosnjak and Croat nationalists are particularly nice.

Whatever slight hopes I may have had about Nationalism perhaps not disappearing but becoming at least a bit subtler Dragan quickly dispersed.

Dragan Bursać

“Here (in Banja Luka) there are perhaps five people willing to speak out against publicly against the situation”. By situation he means the open Nationalism, the all too obvious corruption, the glorification of war criminals and the intimidation and harassment of everyone who steps out of line.

For his articles on Al Jazeera Balkans, Radio Sarajevo and some other platforms, Dragan receives regular death threats. He doesn’t leave the house a lot anymore, he says, and it’s not uncommon that he is being harassed and bullied in public.

He also says, that RS police grudingly investigate when he reports another death threat. “Often I have to sit under a portrait of Ratko Mladić, when I make my statement. His picture is openly being displayed in my police stations in RS.”

Celebrating Genocide

Ratko Mladić has been sentenced to life in prison for being responsible for the genocide of Srebrenica. Units of the Army of Republika Srpska under his command captured, sought out and killed more than 8.000 Bosnian Muslim or Bosnjak boys and men when they took control of the majority Muslim town in 1995.

Serb nationalists in Bosnia and Serbia celebrate him as a hero of the Serbian nation. Murals with Mladićs portraits have been painted in many cities and towns in RS and in Serbia, including in the city center of Belgrade and right across the street from RS’s main government building in Banja Luka.

This has gotten a lot worse in the past year or so. Before, it used to be mainly graffiti with his name. Now, nationalists pay local artists to paint the murals.

I didn’t see any Mladić murals in Višegrad. I am fairly certain that this was mainly a coincidence. We’ll get to that later.

That open Nationalism and the open celebration of genocide have not only persisted but exploded in recent months is tied to one of Bosnia’s shadier political figures: Milorad Dodik.

Dodik is now one of the three members of Bosnia’s Presidency. Each of Bosnia’s three “constituent nations” is represented there. Bosnjaks, Serbs and Croats. Unsurprisingly, Dodik is the Serb member of the Presidency. The presidency of the Presidency rotates every six months. Dodik gets to be Bosnia’s highest figurehead every 18 months.

This is where it starts getting even more problematic than Bosnia’s highly problematic political situation is already.

Dodik is also the leader of RS’s biggest Serb nationalist parties, SNSD. He used to be President of RS for eight years, or two consecutive terms, and before that its head of government.

Starting out as a “moderate” and backed by the EU and the US until fairly recently, Dodik quickly made ever more extreme Nationalism his hallmark. In this he outdoes his Bosnjak and Croat counterparts in Bosnia, and that’s saying a lot.

By this summer, he had started to openly rebel against a provision in Bosnia’s penal code that outlaws denying the genocide in Srebrenica.

A De Facto Protectorate

True, the law had not been passed by the national Bosnian parliament – Serb nationalists had always blocked any attempts to introduce such a legislation – but decreed by the outgoing High Representative Valentin Inzko.

Bosnia may be an independend nation on paper. De facto it is a EU protectorate. The High Representative is the chaperon that is supposed to make sure that things run as smoothly for Western interests as possible.

He – or hypothetically she a couple of years down the road – can override any and all political bodies in Bosnia and Hercegovina and depose of politicians who violate the Dayton Accords that are also part of the Bosnian national constitution.

Officially, the High Representative is supposed to ensure the implementation of the Dayton Accords and is enshrined therein.

I promise, this is not the end of political science class about Bosnia, but we have made it through the most. At least I hope so. If you are confused by the political situation, rest assured: You are not the only one and the political class in Bosnia is very good at exploiting this general confusion to its own ends. Which, for most currently in power, is to enrich themselves.

None Dare Call It Treason

Back to Dodik: Not only did he rightout denounce the new law banning genocide denial, he actively ordered his party to start dismantling Bosnia as much as it could.

At the behest of one of Bosnia’s sitting Presidents, a Bosnian party started making sure that one part of Bosnia secede in all but in name.

Recently, the parliament of RS passed laws that abolished all cooperation with the national government of Bosnia and Bosnia’s second sub-State, Federacija, which is predominantly Bosnjak and Croat.

Bosnians call these sub-States entities. They are also called that in the Dayton Accords. It sounds a bit nicer and noncommittal. And it avoids the confusion that comes with the distinction between state such as Alabama and State such as Great Britain in English. This is idiomatic, and quite often not made even by Enlish speakers.

By its constitution, Bosnia is a very loose confederation that makes even Switzerland look like a highly centralized country. Its national army has been instituted for barely 15 years now, and that goes for a number of other national institutions such as the Bosnian equivalent of the FDA.

According to the laws passed by RS’s parliament, national army and FDA will be dissolved unilaterally. RS will form its own army out of the ethnic Serb units of the hitherto national army. Atop of that, RS will withhold indirect taxes such as customs and sales taxes from the national government. There will also be no further cooperation with the national prosecutorial institutions and courts, nor with the prosecution services of Federacija. These laws are set to become effective in less than half a year.

In other words: This is secession in all but name.

Dodik knows he can not go any further, at least for the time being.

Russia would not back open secession. It couldn’t.

A T-shirt with the portrait of Vladimir Putin on sale in Banja Luka

In the grand scheme of things, another frozen conflict in Europe is far more preferable to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin than losing a stronghold on the Balkans – which he would if the West decided that, for once, it should back Bosnia’s territorial integrity.

From the perspective of Russian geopolitics, a largely ungovernable but officially still integral Bosnia would tie down US and EU attention and energy.

And force Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić to strengthen his ties with Russia. Vučić is oscillating between the EU, Russia and China and not as stable an ally as Putin might expect. For political reasons Vučić can not abandon RS’s openly separatist government. He probably does not want to, either. He likes meddling in other countries with sizeable ethnic Serb minorities.

Yet, the fact remains that one of the Presidents of a country does all he can to dismantle the country whose integrity and constitution he is legally obligated to protect and preserve.

Furthermore, he does not do that from any political position that would entitle him to take such steps. Dodik does not hold any political office in Republika Srpska anymore.

In probably every other country this would be considered High Treason.

Neither Bosnia’s weak central government nor the High Representative have done anything about it.

Sold Out Once More

As for the political aspect: EU and US have issued some rather vague protests and tried to broker a deal that is set to further strengthen nationalists in Bosnia. Foremost, obviously, Milorad Dodik who seems to be getting away with his de facto secessionist dreams, and secondly Bosnjak and Croat nationalists.

The country seems to become even more ungovernable. In order to appease nationalists, the people of Bosnia have been sold out yet again.

None of this had unfolded when I was passing through Višegrad in late May.

Back to Višegrad

Safe to say that in spite of the disappearing RS flag parade, many there hail recent developments.

The town is a hotspot for war criminals and nationalists.

Many of the men who live here were part of the Višegradska Brigada. This Bosnian Serb military formation conquered the town in 1992. They massacred around 3.000 Bosnjaks or Bosnian Muslims, raped probably hundreds of Muslim women in a hotel in the outskirts of town and drove away practically all of the more than 10.000 Non-Serbs in Višegrad.

For centuries, Višegrad had been a majority Muslim town. Serbs had always made up roughly a third of the population, and there had always been a small number of Croats, Jews and Romani.

Today, Višegrad is almost exclusively Serb. In this town of now barely 10.000 inhabitants, there are a few hundred Muslims in the wider area.

As if this weren’t enough, there are annual rallies commemorating the Četnik units of Serb nationalist military leader Draža Mihailović in WW II. In 1943 they too had massacred up to 2.000 Muslims in the town.

To be fair, there are also annual counter protests against these rallies. Nationalists and war criminals may more or less run Višegrad – but they are not all of Višegrad. They do not even represent all of the town’s Serbs.

Most inhabitants probably don’t even exactly want to live here. They have been moved here during the so called population exchange right after the war ended in Bosnia.

Bosnia’s Pretty Maps

This solidified the violent “ethnic cleansings” during the war that had claimed a total of around 100.000 dead, with Serb military forces committing the bulk of war crimes, but not all of them, and the ethnic division of Bosnia as sanctioned by the Dayton Accords.

The goal was to create ethnically homogenous territories.

If people of one ethnicity lived in a territory claimed by another ethnicity, they were encouraged to leave in no uncertain terms. Quite often by armed forces claiming to have fought for them. Many left voluntarily, convinced that after all that had happened, living together would be impossible.

People weren’t killed anymore, the rape of women was not used as a weapon of war anymore, so this was better than the slaughter during the previous three and a half years. It wasn’t a pretty affair.

This made for some pretty maps and hundreds of thousands of essentially traumatized people ending up in places they never wanted to be at.

Višegrad is full of such people.

They are not bad people. They are as kind and as warm hearted and as generous as Bosnians tend to be in general. Which is to say a lot.

But it’s hard to tell where they stand.

Fearmongering Ever Since 1995

Nationalist propaganda didn’t stop in Bosnia in 1995. Almost all news outlets are controlled either by the respective government – which is mainly nationalist, wherever you are – or by people who suck up to The Powers That Be.

This is also true of Federacija, and there are numerous examples of that. It is far worse in RS. A lot of the program of RS’s public broadcaster RTRS is in essence fear mongering against Muslims, hammering down the message that Serb cultural life would be threatened if Bosnia were to become a more centralized country. Amidst, of course, glorifying heroes of the past.

This media induced fear has taken roots in the minds of most people who now live in Višegrad. That’s to be expected if you have been exposed to brainwashing for 27 years.

While probably most of them resent the genocide of Srebrenica and don’t like that the massacres in the history of their new hometown are being celebrated, they are also afraid that anything might change in the political makeup of Bosnia.

They may not like the people who are in power in RS and their hometown. But they see in whoever is in power in RS protectors against the alleged Islamisation of Bosnia and the elimination of Serb culture in the country.

That these fears are unsubstantiated does not matter. To most of ethnic Serbs in Bosnia, the threats are real.

It Ain’t Just The Balkans

This is not a particularly Balkanian or Serb trait.

We can see the same process unfold all over Europa every day now. Thousands take to the street to protest against Corona vaccines they have been told are genetic experiments and against the idea that the pandemic is really an invention to either institute dictatorships all over the world or by the pharmaceutical industry. It didn’t even take state sponsored media to instill these fears.

Also, we are just seeing the anniversary of the occupation of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, by people who genuinely believed they had to prevent the certification of what they saw as a stolen Presidential election.

There aren’t all that many people who manage to build a career on such fears as well as Milorad Dodik has.

How To Take Over A Society

Not to forget that he has successfully instituted a clientel-system. If you need a job in RS you better be a member of his party SNSD.

The Bosnjak and Serb counterparts of SNSD, SDA and HDZ BiH respectively, do the same thing. As do whatever local parties are in power on local levels.

SNSD is a class of its own, though. It almost completely dominates “its” territory to an extent no other political party in Bosnia does. Republika Srpska has become Dodik-Land.

This also due to the fact that SNSD has done a particularly poor job at running RS. To date, RS is by far the poorest part of Bosnia and Hercegovina. RS is in total also more affected by the rampant emigration that even further destabilizes the country.

Since the war, the population has shrunk from 4.2 million to 2.8 million people. And that’s just official numbers. Bosnia’s actual population is more likely to be between 2 and 2.5 million people. Many who leave still remain officially registered in their old hometowns, like some of my Bosnian friends in Vienna.

Relatively speaking, far more Serbs and Croats have left the country then Bosnjaks. This isn’t because Bosnjaks are any more patriotic than the rest. It’s just that ever since Croatia joined the EU, Bosnian Croats who hold dual citizenships can take residence in any EU country. Serbs emigrate by the thousands because of rampant poverty in most areas where they live.

Perhaps counterintuitively, this has so far solidified Dodik’s position. With the economy of RS being in ruins, his party and the economic elite supporting it are the only ones who still have any jobs to offer. You just have to play by their rules.

Celebrating Their Own Betrayal

Bosnia’s official protectors, that is the EU, the US and the UN, see little reason to do anything about it.

Even in this dire economic situation, Bosnia is still a profitable market for European companies. This goes particularly for German and Austrian banks and retail chains.

Slovak factories owned by international corporations exploit Bosnian workers who are offerend three months-contracts under conditions no Slovak worker would accept. It is a migrant worker scheme. People barely make 500 Euros a month. That is far less than Slovak workers make. There are regular shuttle busses for these workers from RS’s capital Banja Luka to the plants near Bratislava.

As baffling as the mystery of the disappearing Republika Srpska flags of Višegrad may be, even more baffling is the question what the people of Dodik-Land intend to celebrate this January 9th.

Serb nationalists have ruined what has become Dodik’s little fiefdom ever since the war and Dodik more than all who preceded him. More even than other Bosnians, all the people in Republika Srpska got was fear, corruption and poverty. And a dose of hatred for their fellow countrymen who happen to adhere to another faith.

What Bosnian Serbs are asked to celebrate this Dan Republike Srpske is not just the betrayal of Bosnia in 1992. It is their own betrayal. There is no other way to put it.

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