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Who Is The Ethnic Serb Nationalist Slated To Lead Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Bosnia's Prime Ministe-designate Zoran Tegeltija (file photo)
Bosnia's Prime Ministe-designate Zoran Tegeltija (file photo)

Without a government for more than a year due to ethnic-political discord, Bosnia-Herzegovina took a big step toward resolving its leadership deficit when Bosnian Serb nationalist Zoran Tegeltija was nominated as prime minister on November 19.

Tegeltija is a close political ally of ultranationalist Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency and the leader of Republika Srpska's ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD). Tegeltija has been a member of the SNSD for more than two decades.

Tegeltija's nomination -- he still must be confirmed by parliament -- has raised concerns about the Bosnian government's commitment to the 1995 Dayton peace accords and its geopolitical orientation toward Russia and NATO.

Dodik and the SNSD declared Republika Srpska's neutrality in 2017 and, since then, have blocked efforts to move Bosnia-Herzegovina toward NATO membership.

But the Bosniak and Croat members of the tripartite presidency want the country to join the military alliance.

Tegeltija was first nominated for the post by Dodik after elections in October 2018.

He said at that time that he was not going to push for Bosnia-Herzegovina's membership in NATO.

Nomination Blocked

So the Bosniak and Croat presidents blocked Tegeltija's designation as prime minister until November 19.

That's when Dodik reportedly agreed to allow a key document to be sent to NATO headquarters in Brussels -- an Annual National Program needed to activate the country's Membership Action Plan with the alliance.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo praised the agreement nominating Tegeltija, saying it "achieves the key objectives of government formation" and continuing Bosnia-Herzegovina's "partnership and cooperation with NATO."

Dodik was targeted by U.S. sanctions in 2017 for actively obstructing efforts to implement the 1995 Dayton Accords that brought an end to the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik (file photo)
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik (file photo)

More recently, Dodik threatened to withdraw his Bosnian Serb entity from agreements with Sarajevo on Bosnia-Herzegovina's armed forces, tax authorities, and court system -- moves seen as undermining, weakening, or inhibiting the work of Bosnia's state institutions.

Meanwhile, the SNSD has signed cooperation agreements with pro-Russian parties in Eastern Europe -- including United Ossetia, the de facto ruling party in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia.

SNSD members have also signed cooperation agreements with representatives of Russia's ruling United Russia party.

For his part, Tegeltija was the finance minister of Bosnia's predominantly Serb entity from 2013 to 2018 -- serving in the cabinet of the SNSD's then-prime minister, Zeljka Cvijanovic, before she became Republika Srpska's president in 2018.

Tegeltija, 58, is an economist and finance expert from Mrkonjic Grad -- a small town in Republika Srpska's western region of Bosanska Krajina where Bosnian Serbs suffered atrocities at the hands of Croat and Bosnian Croat forces at the end of the Bosnian War.

Tageltija studied at the University of Sarajevo's Faculty of Economics.

An aerial shot of Zoran Tegeltija's hometown, Mrkonjic Grad (file photo)
An aerial shot of Zoran Tegeltija's hometown, Mrkonjic Grad (file photo)

He joined Dodik's SNSD in 1998 and worked as a senior manager in public institutions of Republika Srpska – including the tax and customs administrations.

Tageltija was first elected to public office in 2000 as a member of Mrkonjic Grad's City Council. He also was elected in 2000 as a lawmaker in Republika Srpska's parliament.

In 2004, Mrkonjic Grad's City Council appointed Tegeltija as mayor. He was reelected to that post in 2008.

Meanwhile, he continued to work on his postgraduate studies and completed a master's degree in 2006 and a doctorate in 2008.

While Tegeltija was working as a municipal official, the violence that occurred in his hometown during the final days of the Bosnian War was fresh in the minds of Mrkonjic Grad residents.

Mass Graves

The town had been under the control of Bosnian Serb forces for most of the war.

But in October 1995, Mrkonjic Grad was overtaken by the Croatian Army (HV) and Bosnian Croat fighters in an offensive known as Operation Southern Move.

Those combined forces only controlled Tegeltija's hometown for five days before vacating the area under pressure from the United States.

Mrkonjic Grad and the surrounding area was formally returned to Bosnian Serbs as Republika Srpska territory under the Dayton accords.

Then, in April 1996, Bosnian Serb forensic experts uncovered two mass graves in a Serbian Orthodox cemetery in Mrkonjic Grad.

They said the graves contained 181 bodies of Bosnian Serbs killed by Croat forces in October 1995.

According to the experts, about half of the bodies were civilians -- and many of the dead who wore Bosnian Serb military uniforms showed signs of being summarily executed.

Bosnian Serb forces have been blamed and convicted for many of the war crimes and atrocities committed during the three-year war.

But Tegeltija's hometown is cited by Bosnian Serbs who argue that they too suffered atrocities at the hands of Bosniaks and Croats.

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz with reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service
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