How do you use genocide denial to become the leader of the country that had the genocide committed against them? Milorad Dodik has been searching for the answer to that question for some time; and he found it. Dodik is currently the chairman of Bosnia, while simultaneously denying the Bosnian genocide. On top of that, he actively wants to split up the country he is leading. His leadership is characterized as ultra-nationalistic, and has involved crackdowns on protesters, secession movements, and repeated failed attempts to meet the bare minimum requirements for democracy set by the EU. How could this happen? Simple: by abusing a treaty written by well-meaning Westerners.
The Treaty of Dayton
The treaty of Dayton was written on the tail end of a horrifying conflict in the Balkans: the Yugoslav wars. This war was fought within the former borders of the multi-ethnic communist state of Yugoslavia. In the 90’s, this war got worse and worse until a full-blown genocide was taken out against the Bosnian people because of their religion and ethnicity. This was happening while Europe was forming their European Union and moving towards a human-rights centric approach to their internal and foreign affairs. Of course, the biggest war since WWII happening on their back porch got their attention, as well as the attention of the US and NATO, who worked to end the war as quickly as possible.
The Treaty of Dayton was designed to specifically end the war in Bosnia and had to deal with the issue of Bosnia’s extremely ethnically divided society. 3 major groups exist within Bosnia’s borders: Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks. The thought by the Western powers making the treaty was to create a society where no one group can get an advantage over the other. To meet this end, the legislative and executive branch were split into 3 groups, equally partitioned between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. Furthermore, the Serbians were given their own autonomous region within the Bosnian state: The Republic of Srpska.
Gaming the System
With that system in mind, how did Dodik game the system?
Firstly, Dodik is a Serb, from the Republic of Srpska, and his party is the Serbian nationalist SNSD. He won the presidency of the Republic of Srpska in 2010, by a narrow margin, with support from the Republic of Serbia, the country many Bosnian Serbs have close cultural ties to. He ran on a campaign that painted the Bosniaks and Croatians as other, and ran the slogan “Republic of Srpska forever, Bosnia only for long as it has to exist”. To become the president of Srpska, he played on existing fears, and ethnic tensions. By denying the Bosnian genocide he curried favor with the Republic of Serbia, a state with cultural and religious ties to the Republic of Srpska. By creating an enemy of the Bosnian state, and putting “Srpska First”, he won his place in power.
The nature of having a presidency divided, legally, by ethnicity allows this to happen. By dividing it this way, the three major parties that arose all were nationalist parties, one for each ethnicity. The Republic of Srpska, is being led by Dodik to what they believe is best for Serbs, not Bosnia. This is a similar situation for the Bosniaks and Croatians, as they each vote for their ethnicity’s president. Further making the situation worse, ethnicities that are not the 3 major ethnicities are barred for running for executive office. If you are Romani, or Jewish, or even a Bosniak living in Srpska, you cannot run for office. This even further entrenches ethnic division at the core of Bosnia’s democracy.
Under Dodik’s presidency, he consistently played the victim, claiming often that he was set up or otherwise the victim of an anti-Serbian conspiracy. Under his regime, he was investigated for corruption multiple times, a theme that would not go away once he got the executive position in Bosnia. He stated that one investigation, which was dropped in 2011 due to a cited lack of evidence, was a set up designed to rid him of his position. In another case of corruption, he stated that it was unacceptable for Muslim judges to try his case, as they were anti-Serbian. He would also constantly push for Srpska’s independence and would separate institutions between Bosnia and Srpska. In his time in office he advocated for the dissolution of the armed forces of Bosnia, and even ended up getting reprimanded by the European High Commission, and the US Secretary of State, on multiple occasions.
He eventually would go on to beat the incumbent Serb leader of the Executive branch of Bosnia, in 2018. His nationalism would come swift, refusing to attend the first meeting of the three executives unless the flag of Srpska was put in the office. Playing into the ethnic and religious differences of Bosnia, he began further gaining power back home in Srpska, and making more policies to separate the two states. He created a Srpska-only police force, as well as an auxiliary force, and using that police force cracked down on protesters in the 2018 anti-police “Justice for David” movement. Dodik then stated that the riots were politically motivated, and the police did no wrong. Furthermore, he began working to crack down on opposition, and consolidate power, even using political assassination as a tool.
Under Dodik, prominent and outspoken critic of his regime Slaviša Krunić was assassinated in the major city of Banja Luka. A prominent businessman, he was often pressured to sell his business as it competed with the government’s own corrupt businesses. He was decidedly anti-nationalist and fought for an untied Bosnia regardless of ethnicity. Instead of toeing the Srpskan nationalist line, he said that we are all Bosnians first before anything else, and for that he paid the ultimate price. No one was charged, it has been a year.
Year after year Dodik uses his Serbian identity, and the ethnic tensions in his region, to gain more and more power. The Bosnian state, with less and less oversight from the international community seems to be fracturing more and more, and bit by bit the Republic of Srpska is becoming more and more separated from the Bosnian state. It seems that Dodik is positioning himself to be the Strongman of the new independent Republic of Srpska, and unless Bosnia can fundamentally restructure its entire political system to prevent that from happening, Dodik might just get his way.