High representative urged to remove Bosnian Serb leader Dodik or risk war

High representative urged to remove Bosnian Serb leader Dodik or risk war
Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik takes cue from Putin’s Russia as he clamps down on NGOs, journalists and LGBT activists in challenge to Sarajevo’s authority.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia March 26, 2023

The influential Centre for Security Studies (CSS) in Bosnia & Herzegovina has urged the international community’s high representative Christian Schmidt to remove Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, warning that failure to do so could result in a new Bosnian war. 

The CSS made the appeal after Dodik announced plans for restrictive new legislation on LGBT activists and journalists, which followed on from proposed legislation on NGOs apparently inspired by a similar law in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. All three steps appear to be a challenge to the authority of the state-level institutions in Sarajevo. Dodik, an open admirer of Putin, has long called for the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia. 

Dodik’s announcement that he plans to ban LGBT activists from kindergartens, schools and universities sparked anger among human rights activists and prompted the CSS to urge Schmidt to remove Dodik. The international community’s high representative has special powers to intervene in Bosnian politics if the Dayton peace agreement that ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war is violated.

“Hints of undermining institutions and gradual implementation of intentions into concrete legal norms to a large extent recall Russia's aggression against Ukraine, only, in the case of Bosnia, it is carried out from within,” the CSS wrote.

It added that all its early warning indicators that Bosnian society is threatened were activated long ago, and it assessed that there was a high risk of a new civil war.

“In the hands of the high representative is the fate and future of Bosnian citizens. We see that, despite decades of investment and justified efforts and expectations of the international community to leave the future to local politicians, the level of democratic development is not at the required level. Therefore, in these fateful moments for the prosperity of Bosnia, and bearing in mind that the indolence of the international community in the past years in relation to Dodik and his behaviour has to some extent contributed to the current downfall of democracy, we appeal to Schmidt to use his powers and dismiss and ban the political engagement of Milorad Dodik in the interest of all citizens of Bosnia,” the NGO added.

Attack on LGBT activists in Republika Srpska 

Dodik said in March that Republika Srpska will pass within months a law that would ban access to education establishment for LGBT activists. He made the announcement just days after a violent attack on LGBT activists in Republika Srpska’s administrative centre Banja Luka and a ban on the planned Pride march in the city. Dodik claimed that at least 15 associations objected to the event, but also revealed his personal stance when he said in a television interview that he did not want gay people near him. 

“It is the freedom of every human, I am not disputing that, that everyone does what they like, I have nothing against that, against them, unless I do not want them near me. This is where my stance on that ends,” said Dodik in an interview with TV K3.

“Republika Srpska will pass a law within next few months to ban access for members of LGBT associations to educational institutions. That means kindergartens, schools, universities. They will not be able to do that, to come close, to do propaganda,” he added.

Journalists targeted with new defamation law

Meanwhile, the EU criticised Republika Srpska’s political leaders for amending the criminal code to introduce the criminalisation of defamation into the law. The amendments are seen as a tool for silencing independent journalists and sparked strong international and internal criticism.

“These legislative changes would impose unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on independent media and civil society,” the EU delegation said in a statement.

It added that Republika Srpska’s move was in the wrong direction and would not bring the country closer to the start of EU membership talks.

The European Council granted candidate status to Bosnia in December 2022.

“Candidate status comes with high expectations. In its recommendation for granting candidate status, the Commission has defined steps that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to address. One of these was strengthening freedom of expression and freedom of the media,” the EU delegation noted.

It urged Republika Srpska to withdraw the amendments and to ensure full protection of freedom of expression and of the media.

Russia inspires clampdown on NGO funding 

Earlier in March, Dodik announced that Republika Srpska will adopt a law on the activities of non-governmental organisations and civil associations, just days after a similar law provoked mass protests in Georgia that forced the government in Tbilisi to back down. The Georgian law, in turn, was similar to earlier legislation in Russia. 

Dodik claimed that the law mirrors US legislation. However, the US embassy to Bosnia reacted strongly to the planned bill, saying it was inspired by the Kremlin.

“We have seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. When Russia expanded its foreign agent legislation in 2020, it too claimed that it was merely copying the US model. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and we have seen the results. Russian authorities have used their repressive legislation to suppress dissent, eviscerate civil society, and eradicate free media,” the US embassy said in a statement.

The administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Samantha Power, also warned that Dodik is going down “a dangerous anti-democratic path” in trying to pass the bills on NGO funding and defamation.

“In Bosnia & Herzegovina, the president of Republika Srpska is following others in the region down a dangerous anti-democratic path in trying to pass Kremlin-inspired draft laws that rob residents of their basic rights, silence dissent and allow corruption to flourish unchecked,” Power wrote on Twitter.

Growing threat of secession and war 

As Dodik has become more aggressive in his secessionist rhetoric, there have long been warnings of an attempt to break up Bosnia, possibly leading to a new outbreak of war in the country. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Bosnia was seen as one of the potential flashpoints where Moscow could seek to spark instability or another conflict within Europe. 

Back in 2018, the Penn Biden Center warned that Russia could easily ignite a new conflict in Bosnia and use it to destabilise the region if Europe decided to impose more sanctions against Moscow. At the time, Michael Carpenter, the former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for Russia, Eastern Europe and the Balkans who is now senior director for diplomacy and global engagement at the Penn Biden Center, said he believed Dodik would not try to push his entity towards secession without Moscow’s support.

“They [Russia] are his primary backers. And from the Kremlin’s prospective they are satisfied with the status quo, they don’t want Bosnia & Herzegovina to enter either the EU or, God forbid from their prospective, Nato. They like the status quo because essentially RS [Republika Srpska] has a veto over the country’s geopolitical direction,” Carpenter said at the time. 

“However, if Russia feels that its back is up against the wall, that European sanctions for example are being increased perhaps in totally different context than Ukraine or something else, he [Putin] has Bosnia & Herzegovina always readily available … where he can just press the button and really destabilise the situation in the region,” Carpenter added. 

Five years on, Russia is in precisely that position, with a full-scale war in Ukraine and multiple packages of sanctions imposed by Western governments. 

Also in 2018, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) released a report that claimed Moscow was helping the Serb-dominated entity in its efforts at militarisation, aiming to divide the country. According to that report, Dodik was arming and equipping Republika Srpska's police and related security forces with military-grade weaponry and training them with the assistance of Russia, aiming to secure the future separation of the entity from Bosnia.

The following year, Republika Srpska officially revealed its new armed police unit, after backing off from its plan to form a reservist police unit several months earlier.

There have also been several reports from US sources saying that Russia has been secretly funding Dodik for years.