Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnian Serb Leader Opportunistic or Committed Nationalist?

What may have begun as vote-winning tactic now dominates Milorad Dodik president’s outlook.
By Maja Bjelajac
  • Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik, December 2010. (Photo: Serbian Democratic Party/Wiki Commons)
    Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik, December 2010. (Photo: Serbian Democratic Party/Wiki Commons)

During the Bosnian war and immediately afterwards, Milorad Dodik presented himself as an opponent of Radovan Karadzic, the president of Republika Srpska, RS.

Now that Dodik is president of the Bosnian Serb entity himself, his ideological differences with his predecessor seem to have been effaced. As leader of the strongest political party in RS, the Union of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, he is driven by Serb nationalism.

In the years following the 1992-95 Bosnian war, Dodik called Karadzic variously a “villain” and a “annoyance for the Serb people”. Only five years ago, Dodik was urging Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic to surrender, saying the two men were “not Serb heroes, and have never been heroes”.

At around the same time, Dodik said in an interview that the crimes committed in Srebrenica in July 1995 – when 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by Serb forces – amounted to genocide.

These days, his public statements differ greatly from those he made a few years ago. If his nationalism was faintly visible then, now it is a quite open and consistent stance.

In late May 2011, immediately after Mladic was arrested in Serbia, a big rally in support of the general was staged in Banja Luka. It was held under the auspices of the Union of Soldiers of RS, which enjoys open support from Dodik. Also last year, the RS president announced that he was going to establish a fund to finance the defence of Serb figures indicted for war crimes, including Karadzic and Mladic.

Dodik now denies his earlier statements about Srebrenica, and seeks instead to downplay the scale of the crimes committed there in 1995.

In a Belgrade TV debate in early February this year, Dodik was asked by Cedomir Jovanovic, head of Serbia’s Liberal Democratic Party, LDP, whether he had ever said genocide took place in Srebrenica.

He replied, “I have never acknowledged that genocide was committed in Srebrenica, and I never will. I only said what the Hague tribunal had decided in the case against [Bosnian Serb] General [Radislav] Krstic in sentencing him for genocide committed in 1995 in Srebrenica. I only said what was in the ruling.”

Dodik told Jovanovic that Bosnian Serb leaders never took a decision to destroy the Bosniak nation. Hence, Srebrenica was “a huge war crime, but not genocide”.

He went on to defend Karadzic, who he said “made mistakes, but should be credited for establishing Republika Srpska. RS was founded because of his courage.”

Jovanovic replied, “This statement testifies to the change in you, because today, when you have absolute power, you do not dare say what you used to say when you were in opposition.”

Immediately after the war, in 1996-97, the international community placed a great deal of faith in Dodik as a moderate politician who could help ease ethnic tensions.

In 2000, the then US secretary of state Madeleine Albright described him as a “champion of the international community”.

The same year, however, Dodik lost to Mirko Sarovic of the Serb Democratic Party in a presidential election in RS. Between 2001 and 2006, electoral defeats followed one after another.

That may have prompted him to turn to populist nationalism as a sure way to win over the RS electorate. And it seems to have worked. In 2006, after a landslide vote won by the SNSD, Dodik became RS prime minister for the second time. In another election victory in 2010, he became RS president.

Dragan Cavic, who was RS president between 2002 and 2006, argues that Dodik espoused nationalism talk for practical reasons.

“The populist approach to politics implies that all previous statements Dodik made criticising Karadzic and other wartime Bosnian Serb leaders are now being forgotten because of the present need to win votes,” Cavic said. “Dodik’s party, the SNSD, has calculated that the rhetoric it has employed over the past few years is the only way it can exercise power at all levels. Pure pragmatic interest lies behind this populist approach.”

The Bosnian Serb leader’s assertive nationalism has led to a confrontational relationship with the international community, and with the state of Bosnia and Hercegovina of which RS is part. Dodik is now openly against the continued existence of a joint state.

Under Dodik, the official discourse in RS focuses on the entity as something almost entirely independent of the common Bosnian state. When it comes to accounting for the recent past, it questions the scale of Serb war crimes while distancing present leaders from any involvement.

Commentators believe Dodik’s nationalist stance is a substitute for real answers to the economic and social challenges facing RS.

“When you turn to nationalistic rhetoric, it means you have no more arguments,” Bakhtijar Aljaf, director of the Ljubljana-based Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, said. “It would be much better if Dodik had something to tell people about the development of RS, about foreign investment. But he doesn’t, so what else can he offer voters but nationalism? That's their spiritual food.”

Enver Kazaz, a professor at Sarajevo University, ascribed Dodik’s shifting stance to an “inability to create a new political vision”, one that would seek to create a “pro-European society” in Bosnia and move away from “war ideologies”.

“Dodik used the nationalism card in order to win elections, and once he came to power, he turned into a pragmatic politician who continued to use the same card to distract people’s attention from more important issues, such as the poor state of the economy and unemployment,” Kazaz said.

Professor Florian Bieber, of the Centre for South-East European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria, argues that Dodik has moved from opportunism to a commitment to the nationalist agenda.

He argues that politicians like Dodik often start out using the nationalism as a tool to advance their position, but later on they start believing in their own rhetoric.

“He is intoxicated by the success of his nationalism, and at some point it gets to be a road of no return,” Bieber said. “In this way, he is similar to [former Serbian leader] Slobodan Milosevic. Both started out coming from a pragmatic, technocratic wing of politics and ended up with a strong nationalism they were unable or unwilling to abandon. Both could have been unifying, pragmatic politicians, but chose the easier way of appealing to nationalist sentiment.”

Part of this populist approach involves flirting with the extreme nationalist segment of the electorate.

“This tactic reminds us of a similar policy the extreme right uses elsewhere in Europe. In Austria, for example, the Freedom Party has been a master at not distancing itself clearly from National Socialism, while being careful to make sure that its politicians do not say things that put them into conflict with the law,” Bieber said. “It is the skill of provocation which gets attention, mobilises voters who are unwilling to accept the crimes of the past regime, and brings together those who openly condone war crimes and those who just have an ambivalent relationship towards the past.”

Maja Bjelajac is an IWPR contributor based in Banja Luka.