In Bosnia, there is one politician whose name you hear often: Milorad Dodik.
The peace treaty that ended the Bosnian War structured Bosnia as a country with a weak federal government. Three presidents – one from each religious group – would cycle as leaders, and the groups would share power at lower levels. The system left the federal government weak and put power in the hands of the country’s two regions, the Federation and Republika Srpska.
Dodik has led the Republika Srpska for 25 years. Technically a president, critics say he’s a dictator. While the US and other Western countries once considered him an influential moderate who could help keep the peace in Bosnia, many now see him as the man most likely to reignite a war. The US and UK have also sanctioned him and his associates for corruption.
Dodik derives support from nationalist Serbs. In line with that, he often says Bosnia shouldn’t even exist. His government has passed laws to expand Republika Srpska’s autonomy and directly overrule the federal government. He also threatens to declare independence. Doing so would violate the peace treaty that ended the Bosnian war, possibly igniting a new one.
As Dodik has become more isolated from the West, he has drawn closer to Russia and Vladimir Putin. Western analysts consider Dodik to be a Russian tool: If Putin were to support him in declaring independence, a conflict could start in Bosnia, suck in the West, and divert its attention from other issues.
But people in Republika Srpska told me the opposite. “He’s the US’ guy,” one said, saying that despite the sanctions, the US controls him and will not let him do anything they don’t want. Others think he is beholden to no one and is playing both sides off each other to build up his own power and money.
To learn more about Dodik, I met with Alexander Trifunovic, the editor of an independent Republika Srpska news outlet. To Trifunovic, corruption drives Republika Srpska politics.
“Dodik is the owner of Republika Srpska,” he said. While Dodik could push for independence, “he wouldn’t know what to do with it.” The current situation has made Dodik extremely wealthy and it’s unclear why he would change it.
Regarding the country’s consistent instability, Trifunovic said, “The best definition of this country is a never-ending status quo.” Politicians maintain a situation that keeps them wealthy. Outside powers with the ability to change things, like the US, don’t, because they “don’t care.”
“‘Don’t start a new war please.’ That’s the US’ main concern,” Trifunovic said. “‘We don’t want a new crisis. We don’t want a refugee crisis. If you kill each other, that’s fine – so long as it doesn’t spill over.’”
Trifunovic says the biggest threat to the status quo may be the media.
“We try to show the level of political manipulation,” he said. “We try to expose how our people struggle while the politicians get richer and richer.”
Because the media is a threat, Trifunovic says Dodik has moved to silence it.
“70% of the media is ‘covered,’” he said, meaning either owned or controlled by those close to the government. The Republika Srpska government is currently taking steps to silence the remaining 30%, Trifunovic says, citing three laws in particular.
The first criminalizes defamation, enabling the government to both punish journalists and those who talk to them. The second says that any group supported by a foreign organization will have to register as a “foreign agent,” opening them up to charges of being controlled from abroad. The third, still a proposal, would force media outlets to register so the government can deem them legal or not.
“It’s a copy of the Russian model,” he said.
It’s clear to Trifunovic that in Republika Srpska, Dodik will try to decide what news his outlet can report on.
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