Bosnia's Sordid Independence

August 16, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: BalkansBosniaYugoslaviaMilorad DodikDayton Accords

Bosnia's Sordid Independence

The Dayton system punishes electoral moderation, erodes political accountability and all but rewards extremism—and it has been churning for a generation now.

THE DIVISION of Bosnian land is the most salient, and dangerous, example of ongoing elite collusion. “You can tag whatever technical name you want on it. Electoral restructuring, administration rezoning,” a researcher with the Democratization Policy Council told me in Sarajevo. “But it’s ethnic cleansing all the same.” What the armies could not thrash out twenty years ago—splintering Bosnia into three states composed of uniform ethnicity—is now being steadily carried out by bureaucratic machination. I was in Srebrenica in October when the town voted in an ethnic Serb as its mayor. There was international outrage that the Bosniaks had been pushed out of power in the very place where eight thousand of their own had been massacred in July 1995. But those of the town’s dwindling Muslim population I met directed their rage only at their own political elites, who, they believed, had deliberately ceded Srebrenica to the Serbs in order to consolidate their administrative control of the Federation further west. The Serbs would have their territory; the Bosniaks would have theirs; the ethnic cross-fertilization, the pluralism that sets Bosnia apart from its neighbors, would be stamped out.

Similar reversals are now happening all across Bosnia. Later I took a bus to Velika Kladuša on the Croatian border, where I witnessed a separate phenomenon. After Tito’s death, a farmer called Fikret Abdić introduced the town to command-and-control agriculture. Other farmers grew their produce on individual plots, but Abdić was the first to extend his control to everything from the land to the storefronts. His specialty was chickens. By the late 1980s, his company, Agrokomerc, was employing thousands of Yugoslavs, paving its own roads, piping water to distant communities, building schools and manning its own police force—a parastate in all but name. Abdić lasted the war by raising a private army and paying off a surrounding network of warlords, as president of the short-lived Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia. In 2002, he was sentenced to twenty years of jail in Croatia after being convicted of war crimes. He was released in 2012; last October he was elected mayor of Velika Kladuša.

The Yugoslavia of the post-Tito decade—a patchwork of patronage networks, some hardened into fiefdoms, many outfitted with their own private security companies—is resorbing its most embattled orphan. Abdić’s story could be synecdoche for Bosnia writ large: a country that former war criminals, let out from their jail cells across Europe, have discovered seemingly primed for their arrival. It would take but one excessively unstable figure to upend the fragility of this ecosystem. Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, is the strongest candidate for the part.

Fifty-seven years old, brash and broad-shouldered, Dodik is fond of breaking out into Serbian folk song after his frequent electoral victories. In September 2016, he sent the Bosnian Serbs to the polls in a referendum that many see as a dry run for a referendum on Republika Srpska’s independence from Bosnia. The question at hand was whether the Bosnian Serbs should be allowed to publicly commemorate the day their entity was founded—a clear provocation to Bosniaks who see the holiday as a veiled celebration of their genocide. Dodik still refuses to go to Sarajevo to face trial for what has become the most blatant violation of Dayton in Bosnia’s history. “Dodik now has a dry run for an independence referendum should he choose to hold one,” Srđan Puhalo, a Banja Luka–based journalist, told me. “He knows where to print the ballots, where to put the voting booths, how to harness the media.”

When Dodik entered politics, he was one of the few Bosnian Serbs who supported Dayton. His war had been spent ingratiating himself with Western diplomats desperate for whatever alternative could be found to the regime of Radovan Karadžić and the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), whose genocidal record Dodik went so far as to acknowledge. Madeleine Albright found him to be “a breath of fresh air.” Richard Holbrooke declared, “If more leaders like Dodik appeared, and survived, then the original Dayton design could work.” In postwar elections, Dodik vowed to tackle state corruption, facilitate the return of Muslim refugees, break the bond between church and state, and relocate Republika Srpska’s capital from Pale, the center of wartime operations, to Banja Luka, a quiet business hub in the north. More critically, he was open to giving both the Europeans and Americans an outsized role in Bosnian affairs. “The current crISIS in Republika Srpska cannot be in the interest of anybody in this region, Europe or the world,” he declared in his inaugural 1998 presidential address. “We live in a country that is watched closely by the international community and our economy will largely function on the principle of joined vessels.”

Dodik turned his back on the West only after first vaulting himself into power with at least $5 million in American capital and a string of European-imposed legislative reforms. By 2006, his pro-Western rhetoric had stopped, but the Western funding had not. Both NATO and the EU failed to grasp that Dodik was every bit as opportunistic as other parvenus on the eastern fringes—Viktor Orbán, Nikola Gruevski—who were using Western cash to dismantle their democracies at the very same time. When his prime-minister term limit expired in 2010, Dodik tacked to the presidency of Republika Srpska, which he has held since.

It says enough about Dodik’s formerly moderate stances on Serbdom that when the SDS paraded Radovan Karadžić’s daughter for the crowds during an anti-Dodik rally last May, Dodik responded by parading Ratko Mladić’s son. (Both fathers were in The Hague; it was parade’s end for them.) “Dodik learned that one doesn’t need to be an accountable politician in Bosnia,” Mladen Bosić, his chief political rival in the SDS, told me in Sarajevo. “The demand coming from the electorate—for jobs, electricity, whatever—isn’t there. Ethnicity works. Why bother to change?”

Dodik’s control of the media, judiciary and construction cartels is now so complete that Republika Srpska can now be convincingly labeled a single-party state as well as a parastate. He has sent his police to Russia for training, illegally equipped them with assault rifles and given them free range to detain citizens who take to social media with any objections. His private army—one of the major reasons Sarajevo is powerless to do anything about Dodik—trains at Farmaland, a collection of cow pastures forty-five kilometers north of Banja Luka.

Most of Dodik’s funding comes from the privatization of state telecommunications and oil refineries, pushed by the EU itself. He recycled most of the resulting $500 million into development banks that, through a murky hierarchy, Dodik ultimately controls. They are suspected to be his money-laundering machines. “This is where the game gets dangerous,” Puhalo told me. “Dodik is not enough of a Serb nationalist to risk becoming an international pariah for the idea. He is very much like Milošević in this sense. But if Sarajevo—or Brussels or Washington—begin to scrutinize his financial holdings too closely, don’t be surprised if the independence ballots start getting printed.”

THE SEPTEMBER referendum demonstrated that Dodik can dismantle Dayton in dramatic fashion, at will, without reprisal. Europe’s bluff on Bosnia—that it possessed the political will to support the state—has been exposed. “Several years ago, the decision was made not to use the executive powers of the high representative, but to rely on ‘local ownership’ of issues and ideas,” Valentin Inzko, the European high representative, told me. “Bosnia’s leaders and institutions must take responsibility for their own country.”

And yet those leaders and institutions have proven chronically incapable of doing just that. Succoring financial support out of the West is more profitable than attempting to be a Western-style state. Dodik himself has masterfully outsourced his disputes with the West to their own foreign-policy complexes: Republika Srpska runs diplomatic offices in Brussels, Belgrade, Vienna, Moscow, Stuttgart and Jerusalem. Until 2009, Dodik spent more money on DC lobbyists than any other “country” in the world apart from the Cayman Islands and the United Arab Emirates. Most of it was done through a DC firm called Quinn Gillespie and Associates, headed by, among others, Jack Quinn, whose career trajectory—from Bill Clinton’s White House counsel during the bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs to American adviser for the champion of Bosnian Serb independence—proves that one need not even be Bosnian to wring profit out of the country through ideological contortion.

While labeling U.S. chargé d’affaires Nicholas Hill a “pathological liar and proven troublemaker” and refusing to meet a single American official for three years, Dodik publishes Beltway op-eds claiming that Republika Srpska is the only solution to Bosnia’s radicalization problem and an embodiment par excellence of the Founding Fathers’ federal model. This arrangement would be less troubling if Dodik didn’t appear to get exactly what he wanted out of it. In 2009, the United States inexplicably reversed its stance that international prosecutors could lead investigations into Bosnian organized crime. All pending cases were relegated not even to Bosnia’s central judiciary, but to local judges—the very Banja Luka courts, in other words, that Dodik himself controls.