Milorad Dodik might be one of the most dangerous men in Europe, and hardly anyone outside Balkan specialist circles in Brussels and Washington knows his name.
Dodik is the Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite state presidency, the executive of arguably the most complex constitutional regime in the world. Remarkably, as a recent profile in The Atlantic noted, Dodik might be the only president in the world who wants to break up his own country.
Dodik is an ardent Serb nationalist, an outspoken secessionist, a client of the Kremlin, and a favorite of the European far-right. His party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), has turned the Serb-dominated eastern half of Bosnia, called the Republika Srpska entity (RS), into a virtual one-party province. And although he has spent much of his time since 2006, when his party returned to power in the RS, making grand claims about Bosnia’s imminent demise, he has taken credible steps since 2014 towards making these perditions reality.
Prior to his current post as Chairman of Bosnia’s state presidency – a position which rotates every six months – Dodik was the President of the RS, and before that its Prime Minister. During this same period, his party established virtually total control of the entity legislature. That remains the case today, and though he has passed off the entity presidency and prime minister posts to handpicked underlings, Dodik remains the undisputed hetman of the RS.
In short, Milorad Dodik aims to plunge Bosnia, and with it the volatile Western Balkans, into the region’s worst security crisis since the end of the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001). Why? Because Dodik and his party are genuinely committed to completing the project begun in the 1990s by Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić: amputating large swathes of northern and eastern Bosnia and grafting them onto some future Greater Serbian state.
Just how Dodik aims to accomplish this seemingly improbable goal, and why recent international events have put the wind in his sails, requires a bit more explaining.
Politicizing Law Enforcement
The crux of the current crisis is one of malign political interference, the politicization of law enforcement, and, above all, the transformation of the RS police into the Dodik government’s personal praetorian guard, one with a distinctly paramilitary bent.
Currently, the SNSD is attempting to formalize its crowning achievement to date: the (re)creation of parallel security structures in Bosnia, nearly a quarter century since the signing of the American-brokered Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian War (1992-1995), and 13 years since the creation of a unified armed force in the country in 2006.
The lodestone of this effort is the proposed formation of an 1,100-officer auxiliary force of the RS entity police. The current police force in the entity numbers less than 6,000, making the proposed auxiliary force a nearly 20 percent increase in total personnel. By comparison, the other “entity” in Bosnia, the Federation, covers 51 percent of Bosnia’s territory and nearly 63 percent of the country’s total population, but it has approximately 8,500 active duty officers, according to figures from 2016. And though the RS constitutes 49 percent of the country’s territory, it has only 35 percent of the population, according to the 2013 census.
The issue, however, is not one of staffing or procurement. In any case, the figures for the Federation are misleading, as the entity’s police are further sub-divided along 10 cantonal forces, meaning that there is no single police force anywhere in the country on par with the highly centralized RS forces. And that includes Bosnia’s state-level police, the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA).
Re-Arming and Internal Checkpoints
Since 2014, Dodik and the SNSD have aggressively pursued a policy of re-armament in the RS, one explicitly forbidden by the Dayton Agreement’s Annex 1-A, which concerns the hard-power security dimensions of the country’s preciously balanced peace. When news broke in February 2018 of the Dodik government’s massive purchase of automatic weapons from the Zastava arms manufacturer in Serbia, the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, noted that the entity appeared to be better armed now than Slovenia, another former Yugoslav republic that is now a NATO member state.
Still other reports, including one co-authored by Just Security contributor Richard Kraemer, have noted that publicly available numbers concerning the amount of small arms possessed by the RS police are too conservative and that the regime appears also to have invested in heavier caliber weapons, including “Russian-manufactured anti-aircraft Igla 1-V missiles designed to be mounted on helicopters.” In 2018, the Dodik government also signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian-occupied South Ossetia territory in Georgia, certifying the headlong rush of the RS to become the primary proxy of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin in Southeastern Europe, ahead even of its close associates in likewise Moscow-aligned Belgrade.
Indeed, Dodik is fully aware of the uneven balance of hard power in the country, in contravention of a core tenet of the original Dayton Agreement. Since 2014, he has repeatedly threatened other police forces in Bosnia such as the border patrol and SIPA, including in the form of provocative war games-style exercises between RS police and units from Serbia. He evidently is convinced that, even if push comes to shove, neither the Sarajevo government nor the international community can or will stop him.
Similarly, in January and February of this year, RS special forces police set up random checkpoints along the inter-entity boundary line in the Sarajevo suburbs, with no apparent reason other than a visible show of force. Only weeks earlier, RS police savagely broke up peaceful anti-government protests, prompting widespread condemnation from international observers, including the European Union’s representative in Sarajevo. The regime, in turn, has responded by proposing a ban on the filming of police activities in the entity.
In the meantime, Dodik’s government has also fortified its personnel. In January 2018, reports emerged of the regime’s ties to a Russian-trained Serb nationalist paramilitary from neighboring Serbia, and these were followed by repeated appearances in the RS by both a Russian paramilitary biker gang, the Night Wolves, as well as the formation of local Night Wolves chapters. Recent weeks have seen still other nationalist paramilitary gatherings in the RS, including ceremonies celebrating the participation of Russian volunteers in the war that produced the Bosnian genocide.
Eying U.S., EU Wavering Elsewhere
Clearly, these are all data points along a single trajectory: the increasingly militant turn of an overtly secessionist regime. And all this compounds Dodik’s persistent denial of thoroughly-documented Serb war crimes during the Bosnian conflict, especially the genocide at Srebrenica, which he recently falsely referred to as a “fabricated myth.” But why does Dodik feel so confident in his belief that neither Sarajevo nor the internationals, including the U.S., can challenge his will to power?
Dodik is a keen observer of international affairs. He watched the Europeans and the Americans waver on defending Ukraine’s political and territorial sovereignty in 2014 (and ever since). Yes, the EU and U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia – but both Berlin’s commitment to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and Washington’s haphazard approach to enforcing those sanctions make the penalties, at best, partially effective. Moreover, no major capital has seriously expressed interest in providing Kyiv with the arms and assistance necessary to repel the Russian occupation.
Dodik saw the political West blink in the face of overt Russian aggression and concluded if he deepened his ties with Moscow, the West might blink in the event of a future Bosnian crisis as well. In the meantime, the 2016 Brexit referendum in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. – combined with the evident Russian role in both elections – delivered a still greater gift to Dodik: a committed turn against liberal internationalism in the two bedrock states that chiefly authored this order in 1945, and again in 1989, and that have been the apex guarantors of Bosnia’s post-war independence.
Then in 2018, the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo began floating the idea of a “border swap,” a partition deal that would see Belgrade and Pristina, supposedly, settle their long-standing dispute over the latter’s international status. And Washington and large segments of the European political establishment rushed to welcome the deal – forgetting, in an instant, that they had spent nearly three decades opposing just such ethno-nationalist irredentism as the foundation of the Western Balkan state system.
Springtime for the Ethno-Chauvinists
It has all come together for Dodik: he has a powerful new patron, the Anglo-American order is shattered, and the Europeans, too, are abandoning any pretense of a principled policy towards the region. In his mind, it is springtime for the ethno-chauvinists.
The news is not all rosy, though, for Dodik. As in 1992, the Serb nationalist camp in Bosnia arguably has raw firepower on its side. Unlike then though, Bosnia’s Bosniak community especially – that is, the ethnic group formerly referred to as Bosnian Muslims – is far less sanguine about the possibility of violence or the country’s dissolution. If Dodik continues to push the envelope, he will encounter resistance, likely in the form of a corresponding paramilitary turn among Bosniak political parties.
For the U.S. and the EU, of course, such a scenario would be a catastrophe. A return to even low-level violence in Bosnia would almost instantly suck in its neighbors, Serbia and Croatia, and implode the highwater mark of Pax Americana: peace in Bosnia and thus the Balkans.
To prevent this, American policymakers must urgently recommit themselves to Bosnia’s peace and security, as Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogel recently argued. And they must urge the Europeans to likewise step up. The primary target of a rebooted U.S.-EU policy in Bosnia must be Dodik and his regime. The Europeans, in particular, must be pressured by Washington to follow the American lead on existing sanctions against Dodik and leading SNSD figures. And both the U.S. and EU must buttress the virtually non-existent international deterrent force left in Bosnia, EUFOR’s Operation Althea, while continuing to steer Bosnia towards NATO membership.
In the absence of such a credible recommitment to Bosnia’s existential stability, local players, including Dodik’s opponents in Sarajevo, will soon conclude that there are no red lines nor guardrails left. And then, the worst theater of conflict in Europe since World War II may again, quickly, come alight.