Bosnian Serb Leader Treads Cautious Line

As his voters stage pro-Mladic rallies, Milorad Dodik has to appease nationalists in Republika Srpska while keeping Serbia on side.

Bosnian Serb Leader Treads Cautious Line

As his voters stage pro-Mladic rallies, Milorad Dodik has to appease nationalists in Republika Srpska while keeping Serbia on side.

Rally in Banja Luka to protest against the arrest of General Mladic, a man still seen as a hero by many in Republika Srpska. (Photo: RFE/RL)
Rally in Banja Luka to protest against the arrest of General Mladic, a man still seen as a hero by many in Republika Srpska. (Photo: RFE/RL)

Several thousand people gathered on the central square in Banja Luka on May 31 to express their support for former Bosnian army chief Ratko Mladic, arrested in Serbia six days earlier.

The rally was organised by the Soldiers’ Association of Republika Srpska, RS, one of the two territorial entities that make up Bosnia-Hercegovina. Most participants were veterans of the Bosnian Serb army or VRS which General Mladic once commanded. Others came from several political parties, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and groups dealing with the families of fallen soldiers, missing persons and victims of war.

Demonstrators held up banners saying, “General, be strong – justice is on your side” and “May whoever betrayed our Ratko have a short life”.

Several smaller protests took place across RS in the days following Mladic’s arrest, passing off without incident.

Mladic, who was arrested on May 26 and sent to The Hague late on May 31, is still seen as a hero by many people in RS.

The fact that he was arrested by the Belgrade authorities – just like former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 2008 – was a particularly painful blow to Serbs in RS, who have always seen Serbia as their principal ally.

“I support General Ratko Mladic 100 per cent. He is the only Serb general who truly defended Republika Srpska and its people. Those who arrested him and Radovan Karadzic should be ashamed of themselves”, said a 60-year-old participant from Banja Luka, who wished to remain anonymous.

Protesters accused Serbia’s president Boris Tadic of “betraying the Serbian nation”.

The president of RS, Milorad Dodik, also came in for criticism.

“Dodik is a traitor as well. He’s done nothing for our general”, an elderly man carrying a large photo of Mladic photo told IWPR.

Dodik has shown a good deal of restraint over the Mladic arrest. Analysts in Bosnia and abroad say they were not surprised by this, since Dodik has carefully nurtured a good relationship with President Tadic for years, which would have been jeopardised if he turned on him over the capture of Mladic.

In a short statement issued on the day the arrest happened, Dodik said it represented “the fulfillment of international obligations arising from the Dayton Peace Agreement", and would not destabilise Republika Srpska.

As Bakhtijar Aljaf, director of the International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies, points out, Dodik has always claimed he respects the 1995 Dayton agreement which ended the war, and which requires signatory states to pursue the arrest of war crimes suspects and their extradition to the Hague tribunal.

Dodik expressed hope that Mladic would have a "fair trial" on the war crimes and genocide charges facing him, adding that he hoped some wartime generals from the Bosnian government forces would also "face justice soon", creating an opportunity for Bosnia to build “trust based on the truth".

In the days that followed, Dodik appeared to avoid talking publicly about the issue altogether.

Analysts say the subject is clearly very difficult for Dodik to tackle, because he has to avoid outraging his different audiences. He cannot openly welcome Mladic’s arrest, because that would upset the Serb nationalists who account for much of his electorate; yet he cannot come out and condemn it, as that would spoil his relationship with Tadic in Serbia.

Florian Bieber, professor of southeast European studies at the University of Graz in Austria, says Dodic’s diplomatic evasion of the issue reflects a “balance between his loyalty to Serbian president Boris Tadic and his own nationalistic rhetoric”.

According to Bieber, the RS leader’s approach is consistent with his stance in the past.

“While [Dodik] has downplayed the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica and other war crimes, he has been careful not to support those who are too clearly icons of war crimes, such as Karadzic and Mladic, knowing very well that too close an association would taint him outside the RS,” Bieber said.

“At the same time, he has done little to help citizens of the RS come to terms with the past. With a weak statement like the one he issued after Mladic’s arrest, he can always take a more confrontational line once Mladic is sentenced and he can deplore the way in which, according to his perspective, Serbs are treated worse than other nations.”

Dragan Cavic is a former president of RS himself, and argues that Dodik could hardly have reacted any differently.

“Neither he nor anybody else can say they are in favour of fair trials and arrests for all those charged with war crimes – regardless of nationality or religion – and then oppose the arrest of one particular Serb,“ Cavic said. “His institutional position and his personal opinion are not the same thing. Although Dodik often mixes the personal and emotional with the official and political, on this occasion he showed restraint and said what a top RS official ought to say.”

In 2004, while he was RS president, Cavic admitted that a “massacre in Srebrenica took place” and apologised to the victims. He is so far the only RS politician to make such a statement.

According to analysts in the region, media in the RS have done little to inform their audience why Mladic was arrested, or what he is charged with.

“From the moment President Tadic announced that Mladic had been apprehended, the media in RS have behaved as if this is someone else's problem; as if the man had nothing to do with RS,” Aleksandar Trifunovic, editor of Buka, the most popular news portal in Banja Luka, said.

According to Trifunovic, instead of explaining the content of the Hague indictment, local media gave over space to those who opposed Mladic's arrest.

Srdjan Puhalo, a psychologist from Banja Luka, believes Mladic's detention could have served as an opportunity for Bosnian Serbs to face up to the recent past. But he says that is something they are reluctant to do.

“Serbs don't want to face the truth, because that truth is very painful,” Puhalo said. “Accepting the truth would mean acknowledging that things happened during the war of which no one could be proud. None of the RS politicians, intellectual elites, media or church has created an atmosphere that would help people face up to the past.”

Maja Bjelajac is an IWPR-trained reporter in Banja Luka.

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists