From the moderate autocrat to the denialist autocrat

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina (AP) – He was once described in Washington as an anti-nationalist “breath of fresh air” in the murderous and genocide-marked Balkan quagmire of ethnically divided Bosnia.

How times are changing.

This week, the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, now secessionist denying the genocide, was hit with new US sanctions for alleged corruption. He responded in typical style, saying that the days when the United States and other Western democracies “molded Bosnia to their liking” are long gone.

The accusations that he has accumulated vast wealth through corruption for himself, his relatives and his associates are “monstrous lies,” Dodik said.

“The United States is a great power, but it is also a great liar,” he said.

Dodik maintains that the West is punishing him for defending the rights of ethnic Serbs in Bosnia – a dysfunctional country of 3.3 million people that never fully recovered from a fratricidal war in the 1990s which is became a nickname for ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Sanctions, Dodik boasted, will only help the Serbs free themselves from Bosnia in the enthusiastic embrace of their “true friends” – Russia, China, champions of illiberal democracy within the United States. European Union and neighboring Serbia.

The 63-year-old political science graduate first came to prominence in 1998 as the narrowly elected moderate reformist regional prime minister of Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two administrative units in after war. NATO-led peacekeepers surrounded key buildings held by police loyal to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic – later convicted of wartime genocide and crimes against humanity – to ensure that Dodik could take control.

Shortly after, then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met him and “felt like a breath of fresh air had blown into the room,” according to her spokesperson. of the time.

But in 2001, after losing a presidential election in Republika Srpska, Dodik changed course, turning into an outright nationalist and secessionist. He gradually took control of all levels of government in Republika Srpska and in 2009 succeeded in expelling foreign judges and prosecutors from the Bosnian judiciary – while under investigation for corruption and erosion of democracy.

The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, brokered by the United States, which ended more than three and a half years of bloodshed in Bosnia, established two separate governing entities – the Republika Srpska and one dominated by Mainly Muslim Bosnians, more than half of the Bosnian population, and Catholic Croats.

They are linked by common institutions at the state level, and all actions at the national level require the consensus of the three ethnic groups.

In the immediate post-war period, the international community kept Bosnia on the path of reform, pressuring its leaders to abandon hate speech and accept painful compromises in return for financial and other support. But more than a decade ago, international attention shifted to other global crises. Of the 60,000 international troops deployed in 1995, only 600 remain today. Much of Bosnia has been left to fend for itself, exposed to the growing influence of Russia, China and Turkey, as well as ‘widespread corruption and economic decline.

Over the years, Dodik has resisted countless accusations by national and international media rights and freedom groups of restricting media independence and popularizing vile rhetoric against political opponents of all sides. ethnic allegiances. He notoriously defended the 2008 approval by a regional development bank of a favorable $ 2 million loan to a company owned in co-ownership by his son, saying “it was better than letting (the youngster man) become addicted to drugs “.

His family’s net worth is difficult to estimate, but in 2019 Dodik reported annual income and assets worth over 1.2 million euros (1.36 million euros), including one 800,000 euro villa in the capital of Serbia, Belgrade. Dodik says claims about his children’s wealth are mischievously exaggerated by his political opponents.

One of the fiercest of them, Drasko Stanivukovic, mayor of Banja Luka, the largest city in Republika Srpska, retorted that the family had stakes in at least 70 companies, including those owned by their “parents, friends and business associates ”.

Dodik regularly downplays the significance of the 1995 massacre by Bosnian Serbs of more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in the eastern enclave of Srebrenica, even calling it a “fabricated myth”.

In recent months, he has repeatedly expressed hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban will serve as a bulwark against the “tyranny” of Western democracies, warmly welcoming Orban’s assertion in December, according to where the EU’s main challenge on Bosnia is “how to manage the security of a state in which 2 million Muslims live.”

After serving for 15 years as President or Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, Dodik was elected in autumn 2019 to the multi-ethnic presidency of Bosnia, which also includes a Bosnian and Croatian official.

Last summer, with the tacit support of Moscow and Belgrade, Dodik spearheaded the Serbian walkout of multi-ethnic Bosnian institutions – thus blocking decision-making – to protest the decision of the International High Representative in Bosnia to ‘prohibit the denial of genocide.

Dodik and Serbian officials under his control say they will no longer abide by the decisions of the High Representative, a post created under the Dayton Accords with broad powers, including to impose laws or remove officials who undermine the delicate balance post-war ethnic group.

This winter, Dodik stepped up his secessionist campaign, pledging to build an exclusively Serbian army, justice and tax system. He described the Bosnians as “second class people” and “traitorous converts” who sold their “original (the Orthodox Christian faith) for dinner”.

Officials in the United States, Britain, Germany and the West have recently started accusing Dodik of stoking ethnic tensions to distract from his corrupt practices and those of his cronies.

But Dodik says the sanctions will not deter him from “fighting for the rights of Republika Srpska”.

“No matter what they do, they can’t stop me,” he said.

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