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Commentary: Bosnian Serb Leader Can Make Waves, But Not War

By Gordana Knezevic Milorad Dodik (AFP) It may have been a tempest in a teacup, but when Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, appeared at a Zagreb gathering and offered "protection" to Croatian Serbs, he resurrected some unwelcome memories.

His remarks were a discomforting reminder of a 1987 speech delivered by former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic at the site of the Battle of Kosovo, the 14th-century clash that forms the crux of contemporary Serbian claims to the territory.

Vowing protection to Kosovo's Serbs, Milosevic declared, "No one will ever dare to beat you again!" His words -- which heralded "armed struggles" to come, despite the fact that no one was "beating" Kosovo Serbs at the time -- signaled the first drumbeats of the war to come. An anxious, unreformed communist was looking for an easy way to win the hearts and minds of an apprehensive population.

The Milosevic address is widely viewed as the political prologue to the subsequent wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and later, Kosovo. In the Balkans, a pledge to "protect" one group invariably implies aggression against others.

So this time around, it was a different time and place, and a different man speaking the words. But when Dodik made his remarks before the Serbian National Council meeting in Zagreb on June 1, he appeared to be reading straight from Milosevic's script. The Republika Srpska prime minister went so far as to invite Croatian Serbs to his not-(yet)-fully-fledged state, the reluctant partner of the Muslim-Croat Federation.

It came as no surprise that Croatia's president, Stjepan Mesic, reacted with swift fury, reminding Dodik that Republika Srpska was the product of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, and that most of its Croatian and Muslim former residents still have yet to return to their prewar homes. (The precise number of non-Serbs who were either killed or expelled during the 1992-95 war has yet to be established.)

Such charges are often heard, and regularly dismissed, by Dodik, a former entrepreneur turned politician who earned popularity among Bosnian Serbs for his seeming indifference to the "pain of others" and his blinkered fixation on the suffering of Serbian victims alone.

The current culture of impunity that dominates in the Balkans clearly suits him well. The Republika Srpska, however, does not appear to be sufficiently large for his ego. Thus, having taken note of the fact that Serbs in Belgrade are still preoccupied with infighting and unable to form a government even weeks after the May 11 parliamentary elections, Dodik may have concluded that the position of "leader of all Serbs" is temporarily vacant -- and that he's the right man for the job.

As soon as he left Croatian soil, Dodik responded to Mesic's critique in language better suited to street hooligans -- language not heard between Balkan leaders even during the war years. Mesic, Dodik suggested, would do well to keep his mouth shut and his hands off the Republika Srpska. Referring to the 1995 expulsion of Croatian Serbs from Croatia, Dodik implied it was Mesic's land, not his, that was founded on ethnic cleansing.

In 2007, Dodik attended the Guca Trumpet Festival in Serbia. The annual gathering, a kind of Serbian-folk Woodstock, provided Dodik with an ideal opportunity to announce that Serbs are "now also winning peacetime battles" -- a statement implying wartime struggles had been won as well. In a region that is still in the process of digesting its recent past, it is apparently possible to swap defeat for victory.

Unlike Milosevic, Dodik is not a threat to peace. Nonetheless, he's doing his best to reverse the outcome of the last war, and rubbing salt into the wounds of its victims with his tendency to conclude any discussion of the conflict with his trademark response that "Serbs were killed as well." He reminds me of a German writer whom I once interviewed about the Holocaust. After expressing his sorrow for the Jewish victims, he said, with no apparent shame: "But we Germans lost something as well. We lost our sense of humor!"

A few years ago, Dodik declared that Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic should be captured and handed over to The Hague tribunal. In actions, however, Dodik has done everything possible to further the strategic and political goals first laid out by Karadzic in 1992.

His ultimate objective is the same -- to carve out an ethnically pure, self-governed Serbian state from the internationally recognized territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Once that is accomplished on the ground, Dodik can bide his time, waiting for an opportunity to formally sever all ties with the Croat-Muslim Federation.

As far as Dodik is concerned, this is a fully legitimate political goal. His calls for Karadzic to be detained may even be in earnest; the erstwhile leader is no longer needed. Dodik has assumed control of Karadzic's war, only under peacetime conditions, and he is right to claim he is winning battles for the Serb cause. No one is willing to stand in his way -- not even when he supports the construction of an Orthodox church at the precise spot from which thousands of shells rained down on the city of Sarajevo, killing 11,000 of its inhabitants.

By insisting that a wartime artillery position is now an ideal site for a church, Dodik is not considering its merits as a place for prayer. Rather, his recommendation is intended as an insult to the faith of many of the site's victims. If, as the cynical writer told me, Germans have lost their sense of humor, then Serbs have lost their common sense.

Gordana Knezevic is the director of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. The views presented in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

RFE/RL Balkan Report

RFE/RL Balkan Report


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