BANJA LUKA -- Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serbian entity, has evolved from a onetime darling of the international community to one of its most voluble critics.
The 50-year-old Dodik, who once disappointed fellow Serbs by opposing former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, is now an unabashed Serbian nationalist and the greatest threat to Bosnia's fragile, multiethnic peace.
Ljudmila Cvetkovic of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service traveled to Banja Luka and spoke with the Republika Srpska prime minister about his views on Bosnia's future, his close ties to Serbia, and how the international community has failed the region.
RFE/RL: You've joined talks with Bosniak and Croatian officials on constitutional reform, which are generally seen as critical for any future bid by Bosnia-Herzegovina to join the European Union. But you've made it clear that you won't accept any changes to the constitution that seeks to centralize the federation at the expense of Republika Srpska's autonomy. Is there really a possibility for dialogue here?
Milorad Dodik: The process of negotiations has resolved many difficult questions in Bosnia during the past few months, and we've even managed to jump-start the process of Euro-integration. The budget -- a long-standing problem -- and the future of the [self-governing] northern Bosnian town of Brcko are being resolved. There's no reason to think about constitutional changes. We [in Republika Srpska] took part in the process only because we think it's good to listen to others.
Our basic stance is that we don't want to change the constitutional position of Republika Srpska, and nobody can ask us to do so. When the right time comes, a new Bosnian constitution has to include all the democratic achievements of the modern world, including the UN charter that gives every people the right to self-determination and the right to separation.
RFE/RL: You support the idea of Bosnia as a loose federation. It wasn't possible to negotiate that framework before the Bosnian war in the 1990s. What makes you think it will be possible now?
Dodik: An agreement isn't possible under pressure from the international community, but I believe that, left to our own devices, we can reach an agreement between ourselves here in Bosnia. However, that agreement would have to be based on a few crucial premises -- and they do not include the centralization of Bosnia.
We're not raising the question of the territorial disintegration of Bosnia, but simply the preservation of our autonomy and the 1995 Dayton agreement [breaking Bosnia into two entities, a Muslim-Croatian federation and a Serbian republic].
RFE/RL: How viable is Bosnia-Herzegovina, given the difficulties you allude to in reaching any sort of agreement?
Dodik: We've seen excessive use of force in Bosnia. That will surely leave some sort of mark on the country. Paddy Ashdown [the international community's high representative in Bosnia in 2002-06] is directly responsible for this destabilization and for the growing dysfunction.
If Bosnia has any future, then its only chance for survival lies in the coming together of its domestic elements without any interference from the international community, whether it's Europe or the United States.
RFE/RL: You've described Bosnia-Herzegovina as an international protectorate where the Office of the High Representative rules by decree. Lately you've said you're going to take the initiative in terms of exerting pressure on the international community. How far do you plan to go in carrying through with that threat?
Dodik: What I wanted to say was that we could no longer give in to outside pressure, and that it was high time for us to start applying some pressure of our own to further our own goals and ideas. That is both democratic and legitimate, and that's how my statement should be understood.
No Love For Bosnia
RFE/RL: You say that, as a man who respects law and order, you recognize the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But at the same time, you announced in Belgrade that Serbs from Republika Srpska only live in Bosnia, and consider Serbia to be their true homeland.
Dodik: Of course.
RFE/RL: I've heard similar things from people here in Banja Luka. Why do Serbs in Republika Srpska find it so difficult to identify with Bosnia and feel at home within its borders?
Dodik: Well, it's because of the policies of the international community, as well as Bosniak policies, which tend toward centralization and upholding the interests of the Muslim religious community, which plays a significant role in the Bosnian state and shapes much of Bosniak politics.
At the same time, there are fewer and fewer Serbs in Sarajevo. The president of the Bosnian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, who is himself a Bosniak, claims that Sarajevo is an ethnically clean city. Of course, I accept the Dayton agreement and Bosnia as such. But in terms of sentiment, it's natural that we Serbs think of Serbia as our homeland, and that we feel Serbia is part of us, much more than Bosnia-Herzegovina.
We accept Bosnia because we must, and because it is part of the agreement we signed. But that agreement says nothing about love, and if we're talking about love, it's an intimate feeling and I have the right to feel the way I do.
In other words, we will continue to support the Serbian football team, just as I rooted for Novak Djokovic in the finals in Monaco, and just as I celebrate every victory by [Belgrade's] FC Partizan. No one can deny me that right, because it's what I love.
RFE/RL: Some people may interpret such statements as a desire to break with Bosnia and unify with Serbia.
Dodik: We want Serbia to sort itself out and become powerful, and we will always look to Serbia for understanding and consolation. It's not aimed against anything or anyone. Again, we respect the [Dayton] agreement, but we feel uncomfortable inside Bosnia because the role of Republika Srpska is constantly being diminished, and its authority undermined, as a result of Bosnian centralization. It's a state of permanent unease.
RFE/RL: But isn't it possible that all the talk about a referendum and ties with Serbia could provoke a sense of anxiety among Bosnia's other two ethnic groups?
Dodik: If we both respect the Dayton agreement, there should be no problem. We're not the ones working to undermine Dayton or threatening the existence of Bosnia-Herzegovina in that way. We just want to be inside -- and nothing else. We don't want the Bosniaks and Croats to feel anxious.
In the last few years, no one has documented any ethnic violence in Republika Srpska. But relations within Bosnia as a whole are something else. The Bosniaks are good people. But this is not a matter of good or bad people, it's a matter of politics. And Bosniak politics are not the same thing as Bosniak people.
RFE/RL: When Kosovo declared independence last year, you refused to draw any parallels between it and Republika Srpska -- even though Vojislav Kostunica, who was then the prime minister of Serbia, frequently did. Is that analogy still a nonstarter for you? Might that change once the International Court of Justice rules on the legality of Kosovo's independence?
Dodik: Kosovo was taken away from Serbia illegitimately. We don't have the right to start any similar adventures here. We're only interested in democratic and legitimate procedures. Whether the conditions will one day arise for Republika Srpska to make a decision like that remains to be seen. I personally believe that it will happen, that the time will come when the world will say the people have a right to choose.
RFE/RL: You seem to have a very close relationship with Serbian President Boris Tadic. How much support do you get from Belgrade?
Dodik: I don't know. I just think that we have the right sort of relationship. As a country that also signed the Dayton peace accords, Serbia has respect for that document. There's no pressure, no special requests, coming from Belgrade. Nothing like that exists.
RFE/RL: And support?
Dodik: I was a supporter of Tadic [in Serbia's 2008 presidential vote], and he was hosted by my political party here in Banja Luka. We share the same values, and we'll continue to do that.
RFE/RL: And that's all?
Dodik: The relationship between Serbia and Republika Srpska has to develop further. We have to set common goals which are not in conflict with Dayton and not an obstacle to regional or any other kind of cooperation. And that is what we are doing.
RFE/RL: For someone who has been in politics as long as you have, you often allow yourself to be overcome with emotions, and make surprising statements. Why is that?
Dodik: Because that's the kind of man I am.