Milorad Dodik and the politics of referendum

Through threats and cajolements, Dodik is proving remarkably adept at forcing senior international diplomats to respond to his agenda, rather than the other way round.

By Matthew Parish

In recent weeks the president of Republika Srpska (RS), Milorad Dodik, has been threatening another referendum. This time the subject was the State Court. Prior threatened referenda included the authorities of OHR and the independence of the RS. Amidst these political confrontations, one thing is certain. As with prior threats, no referendum will actually occur. After two weeks of sabre-rattling, Dodik admitted as much on 13 May. This is not because the international community will “cancel” a referendum; it is because Dodik does not want one to take place. To understand the political strategies Dodik is pursuing, we must look beyond the rhetoric to his long-term objectives.

Dodik faces a political challenge. He has already achieved the de facto autonomy of Bosnian Serb territory. The High Representative is no more than an occasional irritation. Struggles between Bosniaks and Croats in the Federation mean he is free to pursue his own political agenda within Republika Srpska, unfettered by the need to compromise with the country’s other ethnic groups. There is no state government, and no prospect of forming one. He can divide and conquer his domestic adversaries indefinitely. Yet the Bosnian Serbs are perpetually in danger of restlessness. Their land is indigent, and the region remains reeling from the 2008-9 international financial crisis. Unemployment is endemic, and any future increases in living standards will be very gradual. In lieu of the material void it is therefore necessary to embrace political goals, if the RS government is to remain popular. If the people’s attention cannot be deflected from hardship then Dodik’s party SNSD may go the way of the Democratic Party in Serbia, shortly to be ejected from office by a disgruntled and impoverished electorate.

The only political goal with sufficient universal appeal and unreflective patriotic attraction amongst the Bosnian Serbs is the independence of their territory, representing final and irreversible partition from their unloved fellow countrymen. In domestic terms this is an easy goal and indeed it has already been essentially achieved. Bosniaks have proven they are incapable of resisting Dodik’s unrelenting efforts over the last five years to disengage the RS from the central state. Croats have no interest in restraining Dodik, because they privately harbour precisely the same desires for detachment. The balance of power between Bosnia’s federal units and its central government has been sliding in only one direction since 2006, when Dodik came to power. It is clear that for SNSD, the domestic struggle has already been mostly won.

Yet progress to international acceptance of the independence agenda has moved at a snail’s pace. Despite significant funds spent by the RS on Washington and Brussels lobbyists, a US law firm, a series of foreign representative offices and various international conferences, no foreign sovereign has indicated even the slightest interest in treating the RS as an independent state. If Dodik declared independence tomorrow, in all likelihood nobody would recognize it at all. The RS would fester as a diplomatic sore in the heart of the Balkans, with Dodik as chief bogeyman in the vein of Transdniestrian president, Igor Smirnov, or South Ossetian president, Eduard Kokoity. This is not the pantheon of statesmen with which Dodik wishes to be associated. He has in mind higher office.

Thus in the short term de jure independence is an unachievable objective, because it would lead to an irreversible collapse in Dodik’s political aspirations. For this reason he cannot allow any referendum to take place. It would spell catastrophe for him because whatever the subject of the vote, it would be treated by the outside world as tantamount to a declaration of independence. The road from a referendum to political isolation for Dodik and still further economic segregation for the people of the RS would be short and steep.

Moreover, the subject matter of the recently threatened referendum is jejune. The State Court is already an enfeebled irrelevance, having just a handful of foreign Judges and being increasingly notorious for its ineptitude. Prosecution and conviction statistics suggest that the Court may well be biased against Serbs. But Dodik does not care about the war crimes defendants it prosecutes; they are all associated with his principal political opponents the Serb Democratic Party, in power during the war. The organized crime branch of the Court’s prosecutions has already been eviscerated through a canny defenestration of the international prosecutors after a conflict between Dodik and the former Principal Deputy High Representative Raffi Gregorian in late 2009. There is nothing left of danger to Dodik in the State Court. Why then would he risk so fundamental a gamble on an institution already gravely damaged?

There are two answers to this question. The straightforward explanation is that Dodik has other state-level institutions in his sights: he would like to dismantle the Indirect Taxation Authority, the State Border Service, and a number of other central ministries. Attacks upon one institution may trigger a domino effect as others collapse. They may deter foreigners from further engaging in Bosnia’s impossible state-building project. The threatened referendum on the State Court will further hasten that court’s untimely demise: it loses still further political credibility after appearing hostage to Dodik’s threats. Referendum is a Sword of Damocles that can be invoked at any time for any other errant institution. With this display of power Dodik confirms that the institutions of central government, and Bosnia’s current constitutional makeup, lie in his gift. At any point he can further destabilise what little remains of Bosnia’s state government.

This leads into the more subtle, but more fundamental advantage Dodik obtains from his remarkable recent display of power. In his credible threats to bring the Dayton architecture crashing down, Dodik attracts the attention of those whose opinions now matter most to him: the diplomats in the wider world. In the latest constitutional crisis, the High Representative was relegated to irrelevance save as a mouthpiece for despair in his address to the UN Security Council. His predecessor Miroslav Lajcak, now Head of the EU Diplomatic Core for Eastern Europe, duly flew into Banja Luka to plea for moderation. Yet even he was too lowly: Dodik insisted upon receiving the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton.

On Friday she bowed to his pressure, and dutifully appeared in Banja Luka conceding that he had a point and there were some serious problems with the State Court. Thus Dodik relented on his plans. Baroness Ashton, who knows next to nothing about the complexities of modern Bosnia, is hardly the international community’s most credible interlocutor for the wily Dodik; but her presence benefits him and her equally. Herself under siege and widely perceived as ineffective by her European colleagues, she achieved a significant personal diplomatic victory that may contribute to her sustainment in office. That success was a gift to her by Milorad Dodik, who acquired further international recognition and a debt of gratitude from the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief.

Dodik is a man of grand ambitions, and he cannot achieve his longer-term goals without the international recognition he craves. Had he gone through with his referendum threat, he would have become an international pariah overnight. His high-stakes political gamble paid off yet again, as it has so many times in the past. Such brinkmanship is characteristic of Balkan politics. It invites the question of the most appropriate international strategy in response.

There was a time when the best answer would have been for the High Representative to annul the RS National Assembly’s decision within an hour of its being issued, and refer all the MPs who voted for it to the very same Prosecutor it sought to attack. Alas, the High Representative’s stature is now too enfeebled for such an approach. After this latest débacle, it is manifest that he can now do nothing without the approval of both the UN Security Council and Catherine Ashton. Inzko is the real loser in this affair; in his hesitation, and his urge to turn to other international institutions for imprimatur of his position, he has revealed himself incapable of acting independently.

Perhaps a better strategy would have been to ignore Dodik. He can have his referendum, and it will be sunk under a chorus of international condemnation. Everyone knows what the outcome of the referendum would be: near-universal support for whatever measure Dodik proposes, such is his personal popularity and the overwhelming hostility of Bosnian Serbs to the institutions of Bosnia’s central government. But the political step of holding a referendum would rain down upon the RS international ignominy of a kind in which Dodik has no interest. He has no wish to make the RS an autarchy, at least not in the near future: it is inconsistent with his own expansionist political ambitions. He would quietly drop his referendum proposal, as he has done so before.

For the international community it is tempting to respond firmly to Dodik’s provocations, since his dissolutionist agenda represents a repudiation of the goals of ten years of heavy international intervention in the country. These aims were embodied first in the muscular diplomacy of Richard Holbrooke and then in the draconian Office of the High Representative, the country’s neo-colonial governor. At one time this model was perceived as such a success that it was exported to Kosovo, East Timor, Iraq and beyond.

Yet the Bosnian model of state-building has failed, and Dodik has already achieved the majority of what he wants. His sole remaining desire is to reposition international attitudes towards the Balkans, and in the process reinvent himself as a respected international statesman and locus for the restoration of Serb national pride. This may be a tall order given Republika Srpska’s mottled wartime associations. But through threats and cajolements, Dodik is proving remarkably adept at forcing senior international diplomats to respond to his agenda rather than the other way round. Already he has another subject of equivalent diplomatic calamity on the near horizon. The proposed RS census is of nugatory relevance to the lives of real Bosnian people. But it will again be used to dominate the political narrative and give Dodik the attention he relishes.

To understand the political future of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we must peer inside the mind of a master strategist. Tired of the Balkans, the international community has no resources equivalent to his skills of bluster, calculated confrontation, switch-back and dogged determination to see his programme through. Milorad Dodik is 52. We should pause to speculate what political office he might have in mind after the one he holds now.

Matthew Parish was formerly Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brčko, a city in northern Bosnia subject to post-war supervision by the US government by reason of its strategic importance in the country’s conflict. He is a frequent writer and commentator on Balkan affairs. www.matthewparish.com

Mr. Parish’s book on international intervention in post-war Bosnia, A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia (International Library of War Studies), is published by I.B.Tauris.

His new book, ‘Mirages of International Justice: The Elusive Pursuit of a Transnational Legal Order is published by Edward Elgar.

To read other articles by Matthew Parish, please click here.

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