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Back To The Bad Old Days In Bosnia

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik (left) has set himself against the central Bosnian state. Can Serbian President Boris Tadic (right) be convinced to put pressure on him?
Milorad Dodik isn't exactly a household name outside of the Balkans. But that could soon change -- and it probably won't be good news for Bosnia-Herzegovina or the wider situation in Southeastern Europe.

Dodik is the president of Republika Srpska, the Serbian component of the Bosnian federal state. These days his reception room is crowded with international representatives trying to dissuade him from calling a referendum designed to scuttle a law originally issued 10 years ago by the Office of the High Representative, the country's UN-appointed administrator.

The law would have enabled the federal government in Sarajevo to function more smoothly -- which is just what Dodik wants to prevent. The international community is worried that Dodik's defiance could undermine the state's fragile existence.

Now the UN Security Council has been forced to take a stand on the issue. On May 9, High Representative Valentin Inzko received a solid expression of support from the UN Security Council -- welcome enough, but still a long away from any decisive action.

High Representative Valentin Inzko said Dodik was threatening Bosnia's integrity.
Dodik reacted immediately by downplaying the announcement, saying that only a few countries on the council had actually participated in the pro-Inzko vote: "For support like that it wasn't even worth the trip!"

Back To 1995

Perhaps predictably, though, the UN Security Council has failed to provide for a resolution of the crisis. As a result, the international community now faces the prospect that Bosnia could fall back into its pre-1995 condition as a territory at the center of endless -- and potentially bloody -- disputes by its neighbors. The problems it faces are long-established, and the only way to solve them will be by addressing the core issues that have bedeviled the Bosnian state's existence from the very start.

Like accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic, his predecessor as the leader of the Serbian mini-state inside Bosnia, Dodik has done everything he can to prevent Bosnia from becoming a functional state. Just like Karadzic in the early 1990s, Dodik has done his best to tie all politics in the country to ethnic identities, from the constitution to sports associations.

Dodik has the same advisers as Karadzic, employs political tactics taken straight from the Karadzic playbook, and mimics Karadzic's tight control over the Bosnian Serb media, including outright censorship of specific programs. The man who now runs Bosnian Serb TV for Dodik used to be minister of religion under Karadzic. Perhaps most importantly of all, Dodik enjoys support from the same hard-line Serbian nationalist groups who once gave Karadzic his power base. They love Dodik for his aggressive political style.

Dodik is not the only source of Bosnia's troubles, to be sure. Bosnian Croats recently violated the constitution by blocking the formation of the central government -- reminiscent of similar moves in the prewar period. They have also created their own Croatian Assembly -- another move that harkens back to unhappier times.

The creation of the federation authorities, the government of the other state entity, has been dogged by controversy. The Central Election Commission defined its formation as illegal, and the Office of the High Representative then suspended the commission ruling. There is no proper central government in place and there are no prospects this will happen soon.

Where Is Holbrooke Now?

The international community, meanwhile, seems to be afflicted by the same paralysis that crippled its efforts to prevent the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s. The EU has lost credibility with endless talk and toothless threats. The United States has once again taken a backseat position.

At the same time, there are two regional players who have become much more assertive than they were 15 years ago. Russia and Turkey are both now in a position to play a much more active role in Balkan politics -- and so far that is not always to the general good.

Bosnia, in short, seems to be sliding back to square one.

Back in the 1990s, when the United States decided to take a leading role, Richard Holbrooke realized that solving Bosnia's problems meant dealing with Belgrade above all. He was right. Karadzic's star began to fall when he lost the support of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

When Karadzic at one point became more popular than Milosevic, and even started toying with the idea of establishing a new political party in Serbia, Milosevic responded by cutting him off. The hard-line nationalists in Serbia reacted furiously but could do nothing. Hard-liners in the other two ethnic groups were easier to deal with. Holbrooke stopped the war and found a solution for peace.

Today, almost two decades later, Holbrooke is gone and so far the United States has shown no interest in assuming a leading role.

Pressuring Dodik Through Serbia

The key problem is the same: the aggressive behavior of Serbian nationalists. The solution, accordingly, must be sought in the same place: in Belgrade. Yet the experience of the 1990s also offers a path toward a potential solution.

Dodik's popularity and his usefulness as a tool of the ultranationalists make him a potential threat to the current Serbian president, Boris Tadic. A Serbia that embraces Dodik, however, is likely to find its path to membership in the European Union blocked. So Tadic could soon find himself facing a choice between EU values and support for the Bosnian Serb leader.

As before, the hard-liners in the other two ethnic groups are a secondary problem that can be easily solved once the core issue is dealt with.

All indications are that Tadic will opt for the EU. But he may need plenty of prodding from Europe and the rest of the international community -- including the UN Security Council. So far, sadly, they have not shown themselves up to the task.

Nenad Pejic is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL