At the end of last month (24/05/2023), Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska (RS), one of the two political entities within Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) with a predominantly Serbian population, visited Vladimir Putin in Moscow. This visit forms the focal point of this discussion.
However, before delving into that, it is essential to provide a brief introduction to the functioning of the complex system of BiH.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Complex (con?) Federal Structure
The configuration of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is indeed the result of the Dayton Peace Accords, signed in 1995, which ended the Bosnian War. BiH is a complex (con?)federated republic consisting of two political entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS).
The FBiH, with its capital in Sarajevo, is composed of the Croatian and Bosniak ethnic groups. These groups were involved in conflicts during the 1990s, and the reconciliation process was «facilitated» by the United States, among other international actors. The involvement of Croatia and Serbia, with their aspirations to claim influence in Bosnia, added further challenges to the reconciliation efforts.
Republika Srpska, officially headquartered in Eastern Sarajevo (Istočno Sarajevo), is governed de facto by Banja Luka.
The armed forces, however, are unified. It was a deliberate decision not to allow them to separate (and fight each other) as it was seen during the war. Unifying forces that were once locked in bitter conflict into a single army was a formidable task and continues to pose a challenge.
Both entities have significant competences, sometimes more than they should, and are reluctant to relinquish them. This hampers their prospects of EU membership since BiH is a candidate for accession. Additionally, each entity has its own judicial systems and police forces.
Apart from the FBiH and RS, there is the Brčko district, which is technically under the jurisdiction of the FBiH but functions with a degree of autonomy. Brčko has its local government, institutions, and even its police force.
The establishment of the Brčko district took place in 1999 through an arbitration process aimed at resolving conflicts between the FBiH and RS regarding control over the city of Brčko. Its purpose is to uphold peace, and stability, and foster a multi-ethnic environment within Bosnia and Herzegovina. The objectives are contained in the Preamble of the Statute, which reads:
«With a view to contributing to the permanent and just peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, respecting the national, religious and cultural identity of all people and the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of public affairs, on the basis of the General Framework Agreement for Peace, the Final Award of the Arbitration Tribunal for the Dispute over the Inter-Entity Boundary Line in Brcko Area, and the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the following Statute of the Brcko District of Bosnia and Herzegovina is enacted«
Adding to the administrative complexity is the district of Brčko, which theoretically falls under the jurisdiction of the FBiH but operates somewhat independently, even maintaining its police force. Brčko, which divides the RS into two parts. Both the RS and the FBiH claim authority over Brčko, and it is the home to the only «free city» in Europe: Brčko. Historical examples of such cities include Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland, which bears some resemblance to today’s Brčko), Krakow, Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck.
But that’s not all: the FBiH is further divided into 10 cantons, resembling the Swiss model, each with considerable competencies and even a «prime minister,» representing either the Croatian or Bosniak population. Apart from the cantons, there are four autonomous cities with special status, including the aforementioned Brčko and Sarajevo. Sarajevo, like Berlin during the division, is de facto divided into Bosniak-Croat and Serb-Bosnian sectors.
The federal capital is Sarajevo, where common institutions such as the parliament and the presidency are located, always with further complications…
The presidency consists of three members representing each of the constituent peoples (ethnic groups): Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs, and Croats, who collectively form the governing body.
The Parliament also follows «ethnic quotas» and is composed of two chambers:
- «Chamber of People»s, comprising 15 delegates, 10 from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 5 from the RS.
- House of Representatives, with 28 deputies from the FBiH and 14 from the RS.
Of course, any agreement or legislation requires a complex quorum that does not favour any particular ethnicity.
If the situation wasn’t already complex enough, BiH is under the supervision of the EU, functioning as a kind of UN protectorate over the country. As a result, BiH does not have complete sovereignty in this aspect, regardless of whether the country or its entities may appear to do so
In conclusion, it can be said that the structure of BiH presents an even more significant challenge. While Tito’s Yugoslavia was already a highly complex federal state, BiH takes complexity to another level.
The Visit of Dodik to Putin
Republika Srpska and Serbia enjoy a friendly relationship, with leaders Dodik and Vučić sharing common ground on foreign policy concerning Russia and the Ukraine conflict. Both regions refrain from imposing sanctions on Russia, contrary to the EU’s position. Certain figures in Republika Srpska express support for Russia. Bilateral cooperation is robust, evidenced by frequent high-level meetings and collaborations.
The meeting that serves as the basis for this article is the third since the invasion of Ukraine, which attests to the level of affinity between both leaders. Economically, agreements and investment projects have been signed between Russian companies and entities in Republika Srpska. The summit announces a deepening of the Serb-Russian collaboration.
Regarding the visit, the statements made there follow a precise line that Serbia and Republika Srpska share regarding the Ukraine conflict and the Russian approach to the issue. During any state visit, the statements made by officials are of great significance. They often reflect the diplomatic positions and intentions of the visiting country. [note: it is not a full-fledged state visit because Republika Srpska is not a state. However, as an autonomous entity with broad competences, it has attributions in foreign policy] The statements made during state visits serve as strong indicators of the political stances and directions taken by the visiting country. I will now list and analyze the most important ones:
- Dodik follows the Russian narrative on the Ukraine conflict, referring to the invasion as a «special operation» and not condemning it. He believes the invasion is aimed at protecting Russian security from NATO’s expansion, opposing BiH’s approach to NATO. Dodik portrays Russia as a victim and aligns with Serbia’s «victim narrative«, claiming an anti-Serb bias from the West. This narrative will be further discussed concerning the Dayton Accords.
- Dodik views the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as part of a broader conflict between the West and Russia. He believes that Western countries, including the EU, restrict the freedom of sovereign nations that refuse to align with their stance on Russia. This anti-Western sentiment is strong in Republika Srpska, and Dodik is considered one of the region’s most anti-Western figures.
- Dodik views the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as part of a broader conflict between the West and Russia. He believes that Western countries, including the EU, restrict the freedom of sovereign nations that refuse to align with their stance on Russia. This anti-Western sentiment is strong in Republika Srpska, and Dodik is widely regarded as one of the most prominent anti-Western figures in the region. According to this perspective, Serbia and Republika Srpska staunchly reject the Western narrative that portrays Russia as a source of paranoia and threat. Instead, they refuse to align themselves with the perceived Western bias against Russia and maintain an independent stance on geopolitical issues.
- Both Putin and Dodik share a desire for «territorial integration». Putin aims to incorporate «Russians» from Ukraine, while Dodik, though not openly stating it, wants the Serbs from Republika Srpska (RS) and their territory to integrate into Serbia. Dodik’s reluctance to implement the civilian aspects of the Dayton Agreements, including acquiring federal government competencies for RS, has led to rejection from the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and sanctions from the United States and the United Kingdom.
- Dodik considers the sanctions imposed on Russia as hostile. It’s a narrative that has already been experienced among Serbian or Serb-Bosnian radicals: they suffered such sanctions during the armed conflicts of the 1990s. At that time, Russia opposed the sanctions, differences aside, because the situation was different. Therefore, the positions of both Serbia and RS would be aligned in this sense: Serbia/RS cannot sanction a country that, at one point, did not punish Serbia.
As for Putin, he follows a scripted argument: he thanks Dodik for maintaining «neutrality» in the Ukrainian issue, understanding neutrality as not interfering in what Russia does in Ukraine, as we have seen it’s a «Russian security issue» – one could say «internal affairs». This is a great example of Russia’s soft power tool, «Slavic brotherhood», expressing gratitude to its main Balkan client for the support it has provided. We will have the opportunity to see it in subsequent posts on this topic that I am now opening.
The news of this strengthened collaboration between Russia and Republika Srpska was met with discontent from the European Union and the United States. They fervently urge the Serb-Bosnian leader to restore order, but their efforts are futile as they are consistently disregarded.
Epilogue: A «Breath of Fresh Air» that Became Heated
In 1998, Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State, expressed her satisfaction with the rise to power of a young man in his forties named Miroslav Dodik in Republika Srpska. «This guy is valuable,» the American politician must have thought. Indeed, the Serb-Bosnian leader, Miroslav Dodik, was recognized as a moderate social democrat who successfully distanced himself from the pervasive cycle of ethnic hatred and violence that plagued the remnants of Yugoslavia. Despite the turbulent climate, Dodik managed to maintain a stance of moderation, seeking to bridge divides and promote peaceful coexistence among different ethnic groups. During that time, he criticized the excesses of Serb-Bosnian leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, calling him the latter the «Butcher of Bosnia» and advocating for their extradition to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Albright saw him as a «breath of fresh air» in such a tense environment and promptly provided substantial aid to Republika Srpska. However, it seems that the once refreshing air has become somewhat polluted in the present day.