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The Saturday Profile: Milorad Dodik Wants to Carve Up Bosnia. Peacefully, if Possible

He also has no use for the American ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Maureen Cormack, saying, “She is pursuing policies as if Hillary Clinton were the president of the United States.”

She has given him a wide berth lately, he says, which suits him. “Honestly,” he said, “my life is better now that she’s not coming over here to tell me what to do.”

Once hailed in Washington and Brussels as a moderate who would break with the militant Serbian nationalism that led to the Balkan blood bath in the 1990s, Mr. Dodik has refashioned himself into an unapologetic nationalist, taking pages from the authoritarian playbooks of past and present patrons in Belgrade, including the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic.

Mr. Dodik has called for all Serb politicians serving in Bosnian state institutions to return to Banja Luka, the Serb region’s capital, and has declared those who refuse traitors. He has deepened state control of the news media, and has tightened his grip over the economy and the Serb entity’s institutions, the main employer in his patch of land.

“He went from being an autocrat to being a dictator,” said Vukota Govedarica, one of Mr. Dodik’s rare political rivals. “His governing strategy of making enemies, foreign and domestic, has brought us to the verge of financial bankruptcy and political ruin.”

During an interview in Banja Luka, he dismissed foreign allies-turned-critics, saying “Now, Dodik is the bad man.”

Slumped in an antique armchair too small for his towering figure, he seemed slightly offended by the mention of the American sanctions. Without admitting it openly, he likes to be liked, and along with most Serbs, he has high hopes that the Trump administration will take his side. More important, he wants to be respected.

He defended his decision to break with Bosnia, citing “dangers to the Serbs” dating from the Ottoman era up to the threat of Islamic extremism today, which he says still lurks in the shadows of the fight against terrorism.

He confidently laid out his revision of Balkan history, mixing anecdotes of past horrors with images of the present. He said that Serbs had been victims of Islamic extremism long before Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, saying that “Serbs were beheaded not far from here during the war.”


Mr. Dodik, center, at a parade in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzgovina, on Jan. 9. for the anniversary of the Serb Republic’s statehood. Credit Amel Emric/Associated Press

It was an outrageous claim, given the mass killing of Muslims by Serb paramilitaries during the war, with men, women and children herded like cattle into concentration camps like one in Manjaca, just outside Banja Luka.

He was adamant that “not all Muslims are terrorists,” and proudly declared that five Bosnian Muslims currently serve in the Republika Srpska government. But he added that “most acts of terrorism have recently been done by Muslims.”

He mumbled thoughts on the current sad state of the region, the result of Western leaders who “bought the Muslims’ idea that Bosnia is a multicultural state and needs to be preserved as such in one piece, no matter what the cost.”

“They can accuse me of being a bad man 100 times over,” he said during the interview in a 1930s building in downtown Banja Luka that is now called the Palace of the Republic — fittingly, given Mr. Dodik’s idea that he leads an independent state.

“I am a politician. I am only reacting to the will of the people living here,” he said. “And people here don’t want to be in Bosnia anymore.”

Mr. Dodik grew up in Laktasi, a town outside Banja Luka, where he played on a local basketball team that was part of Yugoslavia’s thriving amateur league in the 1970s and 1980s. He stayed involved in the sport after the country’s disintegration in the early 1990s, and is now the honorary president of the legendary Belgrade basketball team Partizan.

He has a degree in political science from the University of Belgrade, but, like his basketball career, his run in politics was at the local level until he was elected to the Bosnian Parliament in 1990. An opponent of Mr. Karadzic, he formed the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats — a party he still leads — and after the war caught the attention of American diplomats, who pinned their hopes for peace and democracy on him.

For a decade after the war, Mr. Dodik was showered with funds and compliments from Brussels and Washington, with Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, calling him a “breath of fresh air in the Balkans.”

Clearly out of favor with the Americans these days, Mr. Dodik has turned his attention to the East, where he now counts President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia among his closest allies.

He traces Bosnia’s troubles to the poor implementation of the Dayton accords, which he says favors Bosnian Muslims over Serbs and Croats.

“It was an arranged marriage, and it has not worked out,” he said. “Bosnia and Herzegovina is an arranged state, and we want out.” Peacefully, if at all possible, he added.

Perhaps. But just this week, he bought 2,500 rifles for his police force.

“We have nothing to hide,” he said of the purchase. The weapons are intended to “raise their capability to the standard of regional police forces, fighting terrorism.”

He added: “For 20 years, we have been denied the right to properly equip our police force. Now, we’ve decided to do just that.”

It is impossible to say how far Mr. Dodik is willing to go to achieve his goal of breaking up Bosnia. “Is he a nationalist at heart? I don’t know,” said Loïc Trégourès, a Balkans expert who has studied Mr. Dodik’s rise and who teaches at the Catholic Institute of Paris. “He is a politician who will do anything to remain in power.”

Mr. Trégourès said that Mr. Dodik had once offered an explanation of sorts for his nationalist push. “He told me bluntly, ‘I can talk about heath care and the social system and nobody will listen. But if I say I promise I will never give up Republika Srpska, they all cheer my name.’ ”

Source: NYT > World

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