BANJA LUKA, Bosnia and Herzegovina – When the Bosnian Medicines Agency inspected oxygen sold to hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients in the Serb-controlled region in September, it made a shocking discovery: the oxygen was intended for use only in industrial machinery, not on human beings.
But rather than try to correct the situation, the region’s leader, Milorad Dodik, a pugnacious Serbian nationalist, has instead tried to tear apart the multi-ethnic fabric of the Bosnian state, a fragile union created in 1995 by American diplomacy on the rubble of war.
First, Mr. Dodik announced that he was creating his own drug agency and removing his stronghold, which covers about half of Bosnian territory, from the surveillance of central government inspectors.
Since then, he has threatened to withdraw from the multi-ethnic Bosnian armed forces and form his own, exclusively Serb army. He also wants to leave the state tax agency, its intelligence service and its judicial system, promising to speed up what he calls the “peaceful dissolution” of a Bosnian state born of a peace agreement reached in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio.
Bosnian investigators traced the oxygen shipments to a company controlled by one of Mr Dodik’s close political allies. Some foreign diplomats and rival politicians see his secessionist threats primarily as a way to deflect corruption allegations.
But in a region where the shadow of war is ever-present, many Bosnians fear that the country’s peace is under threat.
“It won’t be peaceful,” warned Sefik Dzaferovic, one of Bosnia’s three presidents, each elected to represent a particular ethnic group.
A patchwork of different peoples and religions, Bosnia has long been a powder keg for greater conflagrations.
It was in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, that a teenage Serbian nationalist sparked World War I by assassinating an Austrian archduke in June 1914, and where the seemingly deranged rants of a Serbian psychiatrist, Radovan Karadzic, presaged a three-year series of bloodshed in the 1990s. These Balkan wars claimed an estimated 140,000 lives, drew in fighter jets and NATO soldiers, and created a wedge between Russia and the West that persists today.
Now the United States and the European Union, which Bosnia aspires to join, are desperate to prevent the new crisis from escalating into conflict or creating the kind of political instability that Russia could exploit. Russia, which wants to prevent Bosnia from joining the bloc or NATO, is already siding with Mr. Dodik.
The frictions in Bosnia are rooted in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord, brokered by the United States. The agreement ended the fighting but created an elaborate and highly dysfunctional political system, with a weak central authority in which different ethnic groups share power. The trio of elected presidents are Mr. Dodik, who represents Serbs, Mr. Dzaferovic, who represents Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks, and Zeljko Komsic, an ethnic Croat.
Mr. Dodik has been making noise about Serbian secession for more than a decade, but has never provoked such an explosive crisis. A report released in October by the top UN official in Bosnia, Germany’s Christian Schmidt, described the situation as “the greatest existential threat” to the country’s survival since the early 1990s.
Mr. Schmidt, in a recent interview, downplayed the risk of a return to bloodshed and said he expected Mr. Dodik to drop his threat to form a separate ethnic Serb army.
Among many Bosnians, however, fear is on the march again.
When Mr Schmidt met in mid-December with students from a vocational school in Tuzla, a town where Bosnia’s different ethnic groups tend to live in rare harmony, he was repeatedly asked what he was doing to prevent a return to war.
A student recalled that his parents had lived through the horror of the Bosnian conflict from 1992 to 1995 and asked: “Can you promise us that this will not happen again? Another told Mr. Schmidt: “I can’t wait to leave this country where the word ‘war’ is increasingly used.
A teacher showed a photo from 1991 showing a dozen of her male students at the time, all looking relaxed and happy. A quarter of them, she said, were killed in the fighting that began soon after.
In Europe, the response to Mr. Dodik’s provocations has been mixed. Germany and Britain discuss sanctions. But Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban, recently visited the capital of the Serbian region, Banja Luka, to offer his support to Mr Dodik and pledged to veto any European Union decision. to impose penalties.
Under the terms of the Dayton Settlement, Bosnia is divided into two largely self-governing parts: Mr. Dodik’s Serbian territory, known as Republika Srpska, and a federation controlled by ethnic Bosniaks and Croats. The federation, in turn, is divided into 10 “cantons”, each with its own government.
Many Bosnians view Mr. Dodik’s disruptive actions as proof that Bosnian Serbs should never have been allowed by the Dayton accord to cling to their own domain, an entity ruled by men like Mr. Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, who have since been convicted of genocide in The Hague for the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre and other atrocities.
But Mr. Dodik and many of his fellow Serbs still deny war crimes committed by ethnic relatives and instead see themselves as victims, as they did during the war. They now claim Bosnian Serbs are being unfairly harassed, after a July decision by Mr Schmidt’s predecessor as a UN envoy that banned genocide denial. The ban applies to all ethnic groups, but many Bosnian Serbs see it as targeted at them.
Mirko Sarovic, the leader of a Serbian political party opposed to Mr Dodik, denounced the ban as a “big mistake”. In an interview, he said it had emboldened belligerent nationalists, bolstered Mr Dodik’s previously waning public support and encouraged him to embark on a “reckless adventure” which “has no chance of succeeding and has enormous potential to provoke conflict”.
Mr. Dodik is a former American protege whom the Clinton administration hailed in 1998 as a “breath of fresh air”. Now, President Biden’s special envoy to the region, Gabriel Escobar, calls him a threat that “stabs the heart, strikes the heart of Dayton.”
In October, Mr Dodik warned that the Bosnian Serbs would “defend themselves with our forces if necessary” and said that “our friends” – namely Russia and neighboring Serbia – could be counted on to repel any effort to contain it by NATO. Alliance.
Serbia, however, showed no interest in repeating its role in the 1990s, when it sent arms and paramilitary gangs to support ethnic relatives in Bosnia. And just how much Russia really supports Mr. Dodik is unclear.
Last month he returned from a visit to Moscow claiming to have received pledges of support during a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin. But the Kremlin, which usually announces meetings well in advance, waited days to confirm it had happened. Then he put the Serbian leader in his place, saying Mr Putin’s “main event” that day had been a “coal conference”, not Mr Dodik.
Yet the Kremlin is clearly glad to see Bosnia in disarray, given that the United States and Europe once championed it as a showcase for successful nation-building. For years, Mr Putin has warned the former communist lands of Eastern Europe that Western promises of peace and prosperity are in vain.
The big question is whether Mr Dodik’s threats are real or are primarily political theater to rally his nationalist base ahead of the October election.
“He himself probably doesn’t really know where this is all leading,” said Mr. Schmidt, the UN envoy, adding that he was on a “dangerous and slippery road”.
Mr. Dodik has privately indicated, according to diplomats, that his main interest is to keep prosecutors out of his domain in order to eliminate the risk that credible reports of endemic corruption will ever be seriously investigated – including including the industrial oxygen scandal for Covid patients.
The Bosnian health investigator traced those shipments to a company based in Mr. Dodik’s hometown of Laktasi, which is controlled by the former interior minister of his Serbian region.
“This is all a political game, and politics in Bosnia is just a smokescreen to cover up the crime,” Aleksandar Zolak, the head of the drug agency, said in an interview. “Dodik knows he can only be denounced by independent institutions and people who speak the truth, so he is doing everything he can to destroy them.”
Mr. Dodik, however, used the opportunity to paralyze the central government. The three presidents are supposed to meet every two weeks to approve key proposals. But they haven’t met since October, when Mr Dodik showed up with an accordion and started singing Serbian folk songs in his office with a group of supporters.
Since then, he has rejected or ignored all proposals submitted to him and his fellow presidents.
“Dodik survives thanks to the conflict,” said Branislav Borenovic, leader of a Serbian opposition party. “He hates stability because then he has to explain why we live the way we do,” he said, adding that Mr Dodik “plays on the emotions of his people and doesn’t care about the consequences.”
Even if Mr. Dodik is just playing politics, Mr. Borenovic said, his antics stoke passions to a dangerous level: “In a country of three million people, you can always find a few idiots to light the fire .