Vučić is also avoiding Dodik, who is now written off politically, and internationally undesirable as a guest. It is no different with his longtime Croatian associate in various projects and businesses: Dragan Čović is literally hiding from him, there is no more birthday parties to which Dodik would have flown for by helicopter and where he was was welcomed with all honours. All of a sudden, as taught, Čović has forgotten about their blood fraternities. Financial supporters will have to stop cooperating with him. Dodik is left alone to tell stories about himself to his basketball friends. At least for now he will be able to throw the ball into the basket undisturbed. But he can’t know for sure when the unpleasant questions by international investigators will begin. Or, above all, when his financial partners will start asking where their money is.

By: Borut Šuklje

On that Thursday in January 2022, he knew he had been abandoned. There was just one guest he had longed to come to his big celebration – knowing that his presence would put the stamp of confirmation on all their alliances. He was also afraid that this guest wouldn’t turn up at this crucial time. And he really didn’t: Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić left him all alone. Sure, he sent his envoy – but regardless of her high position she was irrelevant. On that day he remembered all the things he wanted to keep quiet about and conceal. He remembered how everything leading up to that January 9th had begun much earlier, on that autumn day in 1996 when he was walking around the Marriott in Washington. There, in that prestigious hotel, everything was (for him at least) so different to his own country, scarred by wars and strewn with the dead. He was aware at the time that they had selected him because he would be able to punish and remove the culprits that caused the bloody war. And it could really be said that Milorad Dodik was their new chosen one. He came to America at the invitation of a special government agency which thought he could succeed. Dodik was just 38 when they sought out a new Bosnian Serb political leader.

Removing the criminal legacy

My Belgrade colleague, the British ambassador Charles Crawford, said that those years were the right time for Dodik-style politicians: uncompromising and rough types who would be able to deal with the criminal legacy. Dodik himself used to point out that he was different. Just over a year after that meeting in the Marriott, following the elections in late November 1997, Dodik became Bosnian Serb prime minister, although with only two members of parliament. He did also have the support of Bosniak politicians. Slobodan Milošević demanded that the new government include individuals directly responsible for the horrors of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but Dodik refused. He told Milošević he would clean up the criminals of the former regime. Dodik condemned those responsible for the war, indicting Radovan Karadžić and, following the judgements of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, also demanded that President Karadžić and Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladić surrender to The Hague Tribunal. At that time the President and the General were on bad terms; in fact they hated each other. Karadžić believed that Mladić would liquidate him, while Mladić was convinced that removing Karadžić was the only way to stop him opposing the will of the generals and emphasizing his political greatness. I have no doubt, Dodik repeated to the guests – German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – that those who are accused and in hiding must be arrested and sent to The Hague.

Not long after that Milošević marked him as a foreign mercenary, and Dodik responded that the time had come for Milošević to say goodbye to the throne. He alleged that since the first arrival of Serbs in the Balkans no Serbian emperor, prince, king or president had caused his people so much misfortune or taken so much blood, decisively separating his people from the rest of the world, as Milošević. At the time Carlos Westendorp, a charming and outstanding interlocutor who was former minister in the Spanish government of Felipe Gonzalez, was the International High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I met Gonzalez in 1994, during the visit of Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovšek PhD to Madrid. Westendorp was assisted in Sarajevo by Pedro Sanchez, who is the current president of the Spanish government. Sanchez must have been less than 30 at the time, and acted as a kind of European guardian to Dodik. Both were about the same height (approaching two meters), and they both loved to play basketball. But their conversations were primarily about the importance of the European Union and respect for the rule of law. And about the new, different Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Russian investors and their wishes

And then Dodik started to forget. Or rather, he began to adjust his view from the Marriott Hotel to the current circumstances. The year 2007 was probably a turning point, with two events coming to mind. A high-level American government official, Daniel Fried, came to visit Banja Luka; he left satisfied, judging that Dodik remained true to his old form. Dodik convinced Fried that he was ready to support the decision on Kosovo’s independence. (Later, when the documents recording this somehow became available, Dodik claimed it was all a US lie). Also in 2007, Dodik’s government sold Telekom Republika Srpska to Serbia. The financial reward was good and at the same time it sent a political signal about the possibility of investing in Banja Luka. Miroslav Mišković, the owner of Delta Holding, and Miodrag Babić, President of the Management Board of pharmaceutical giant Hemofarm, were among the first to do so. Immediately afterwards Dodik came to understand Russia’s wishes regarding investments in Bosnian energy: they were able to buy the oil refinery in Bosanski Brod – when it was not completely clear who was buying it or whose money it was – and, immediately afterwards, the motor oil factory in Modriča. With the proceeds from the sale, Dodik formed a new investment and development fund for Republika Srpska. Along with political power, he also gained financial strength – which surprised him. Perhaps it wasn’t ever beyond him, but he started to apply the old Milošević tactics: cause a problem and then persuade European politicians that problems can only be solved by cooperating with Dodik. He started calling referendums to decide all matters, including on the exit of Republika Srpska from the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time, he knew all along that there would be no referendum. In particular, Dodik knew the fate of his predecessors – and here I must remind you of a story which goes back almost thirty years, and which burdened Dodik closely and constantly.

There are of course differences between the events recounted here, and we must understand them individually and separately, and not equate or compare their main characters too quickly. The first man, when he found out the news, hit his head – but such mercy, in at least providing a moment of oblivion, was not granted to the second man. Nor should we overlook the fact that in the first case our protagonist could not, when he first woke up, have anticipated the message he was to hear later that day – while our second character had several days advance warning about most of what he was subsequently told.

The role of the Serbian Orthodox Church

In the first instance the President of the Bosnian Serb Parliament, Momčilo Krajišnik, could not have known what had happened in November 1995 because he was more or less peacefully asleep when it was happening. Even in his dreams he knew that he was always completely superfluous; he had felt that way since joining the peace negotiations on ending the war in Bosnia. Whenever agreements were being made on ending the killings, he would be sent out of the room at Milošević’s request. Such was the case that Monday when Warren Christopher, US Secretary of State, wanted to talk to Serbian President Slobodan Milošević at half past two in the morning. The negotiations at Dayton, the US military base, were near completion and no one knew whether they would be successful or not. Christopher’s request was for Milošević to hand over to the Bosnian negotiators the settlement of Vogošća and the hills around Sarajevo, from which Serb forces shelled the city. His reply was as short as the whole morning’s meeting: OK, said Milošević, give them that too, but let it be the last thing they demand from us. Then they slept a little. In the morning, the Serbian president gave an order to his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Milan Milutinović, to inform Krajišnik about the new agreement (in Dayton, everyone lived very close by). They went to knock on the door of Krajišnik’s hotel room. Standing impatiently in the hall he was told that President Milošević had separated Vogošća and the hills above Sarajevo from the territory of Republika Srpska in compliance with the American request. On hearing the unexpected news Krajišnik fainted, collapsing to the floor and hitting his head.

Four years later, on March 15 1999, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovšek received Patriarch Pavle, who was returning to Belgrade from a visit to Italy. The Patriarch was looking forward to a warm reception in Slovenia. During their conversation, Pavle mentioned that he had mediated in the dispute between Milošević and Radovan Karadžić and was a co-signatory of the agreement on the composition of the Dayton negotiating team, which excluded Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić from the delegation (Milošević did not want to listen to them in America). Part of the Serbian Orthodox Church leadership therefore accused the Patriarch of being an accomplice in the surrender of Vogošća and the Sarajevo hills, of betraying Republika Srpska. That obviously burdened him. On the other hand, he never appeared in public to be burdened by the fact that the Serbian Church, under his leadership, gave full support to Karadžić’s forces throughout the war in Bosnia and denied the existence of concentration and rape camps and the indiscriminate killing of civilians by Serb forces. Even after the genocide in Srebrenica, the Church never acknowledged the crimes committed against non-Serb civilians, nor apologised for the role the Church played in inciting these crimes.

US blacklist and sanctions

At the end of the summer of 2021, Milorad Dodik announced that the process of secession of Republika Srpska from the united and internationally recognized state of Bosnia and Herzegovina would begin in November at the latest. That he would dismantle the Dayton Peace Agreement. He kept repeating such messages in all available social media, casting about for any who would listen – just as he was searching for political allies. First and foremost, Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn’t willing to send him an encouraging message which he could present to the public. Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić likewise withdrew into the background. Dodik’s third friend, Viktor Orban, paid a private visit on November 6 accompanied by the Hungarian Foreign Minister. It is difficult to understand the reasons for his sudden visit, but it should be mentioned that Orban had talked to the High Representative for Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, only two days before. Maybe he wanted to convey the warnings he had heard to Dodik. They had lunch on Saturday at the Kej restaurant by the Vrbas River – about halfway between the airport in Laktaši, where Orban’s plane landed, and Banja Luka. The whole area was closed by the police and, of course, there were no explanations about the purpose of the meeting. The next day, a Sunday evening, Dodik was already in Ljubljana having dinner with the Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša. The future of Bosnia and Herzegovina lies in respecting territorial unity and the existing constitutional order, he was clearly told, as well as in membership of the European Union. So his return home was not very pleasant – and it was only a few hours before the crucial day.

On Monday November 8, 2021, the special emissary of the US representative for the Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, arrived in Sarajevo. Less than two weeks earlier Escobar had questioned whether he wanted to meet Dodik at all, given the role of corruption in his undermining of central institutions in B&H. Escobar had also described Dodik as only interested in protecting his own power and money; he warned others off buying into his rhetoric or cooperating with him, since Dodik’s announcements were bringing instability to the region. In particular, Dodik had declared that by the end of November 2021 he would revoke the consent of Republika Srpska to the agreement on the armed forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also annul the Laws on Justice and the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH, the Tax Administration, the State Investigation and Protection Agency, and the BiH Intelligence and Security Agency. Escobar welcomed Dodik that Monday, who assured him that he would be very cooperative. The meeting was obviously successful; Dodik forgot about all the crucial things he announced.

Unlike Krajišnik Dodik didn’t faint, collapse or hit his head at the start of the meeting. He already knew roughly what he was going to hear, so he just nodded at Escobar. Of the one hundred and forty laws the Parliament of Republika Srpska was supposed to adopt at the November session, only four decrees with no legal force remained on the agenda.

In January 2017, the US authorities put Dodik on the so-called blacklist due to the threat he posed to the peace agreement reached in Dayton. According to the Washington Post, Republika Srpska has become the eighth largest client of lobbying services in the US capital. Dodik first hired the offices of Picard, Kentz & Rowe, and then rejoiced at Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The role of lobbyist was given to Trump’s former advisers in the election campaign, primarily Jason Osborne. But four years later, Trump lost the election.

Biden’s message

On May 17, 2021, the hosts of his stay at the Marriott Hotel in Washington went to visit Bosnia, to Dodik’s home town of Banja Luka. Large joint military exercises of the US and Bosnian-Herzegovinian armies commenced.

American politics is returning to the Balkans with President Biden. That was the first message – while the second was that the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina are unchanging. Dodik is a pragmatic politician and should understand such messages, but he didn’t. The US administration imposed financial sanctions on both him and his son. In Republika Srpska at least, the Dodik-controlled media wanted to create the impression that, together with Vučić and with the help of Orban, they could sweep everything under the carpet. The complete opposite happened: Vučić is also avoiding Dodik, who is now written off politically, and internationally undesirable as a guest. Financial supporters will have to stop cooperating with him. Dodik is left alone to tell stories about himself to his basketball friends. At least for now he will be able to throw the ball into the basket undisturbed. But he can’t know for sure when the unpleasant questions by international investigators will begin. Or, above all, when his financial partners will start asking where their money is.

About the author:

Borut Šuklje
is a Slovenian journalist, official, MP, diplomat, writer and politician. In 1990 Mr Šuklje entered the National Council of Slovenia as a member of the Socialist Party. During 1990 and 1992, he was a director of programming at RTV Slovenia. In the period from 1994 to 1996 he was the Minister of Culture for the Republic of Slovenia; 1996 -1999 Secretary General of the Slovenian Republic; 1999-2001, he was the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Slovenia and in 2001 he was appointed ambassador to the FRY. In 2004, he was diagnosed with cancer which he successful defeated. TToday he is an international advisor on Southeast Europe and the Western Balkans, and CEO of the Agency for Strategic Studies, which specializes in providing business and management consultancy services to Slovenian and foreign companies in the development and implementation of their projects in Southeastern Europe.