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Balkans Without Borders

Milorad Dodik, president of Bosnia-Herzegovina's predominantly Serb entity Republika Srpska

If it were merely a Bosnian reality show, it might be good fun. But it happened in real life -- and created a diplomatic storm in a teacup.

Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, the predominantly ethnically Serb part of Bosnia, announced that he had received an invitation to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration. It would make him the only Balkan politician present at the January 20 event in Washington.

Convinced that an honor had been extended to him that was denied even to heads of state in the region, Dodik duly applied for a diplomatic visa as required for travel to the United States.

But almost immediately following Dodik's announcement, Bosnian Foreign Minister Igor Crnadak made it clear that only ambassadors are invited to the inauguration and that Bosnia would be represented by its Washington envoy. He also explained that any such invitation is normally sent through the Foreign Ministry and would not arrive in the form of a private letter, as Dodik was suggesting.

In response, Dodik presented his "invitation" during a live interview on N1TV, albeit without revealing the letterhead or the signature.

It has since become clear, however, that Dodik has not been invited to Trump's official inauguration ceremony but to a private ball organized by religious and conservative groups (including the Tea Party) on the margins of Trump's inauguration.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo subsequently confirmed that Dodik was not on the guest list at its disposal of invitees to the inauguration. It added that it did not have a list of planned attendees for events on the sidelines of the inauguration.

And in fact, the U.S. Embassy did not issue Dodik a diplomatic visa, reportedly because he would not be representing his country at the event.

But Dodik seemed to be suggesting that there was a more sinister reason behind the perceived snub.

"For procedural reasons, I had applied for the visa earlier, but my request had been denied on the grounds that I am not an official representative of the Bosnian state and am therefore ineligible for that visa, which I have previously been granted on a regular basis," Dodik explained.

He went on to give a detailed account of a conversation he purportedly had a week ago with Hoyt Brian Yee, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs. According to Dodik, Yee asked him to renounce his party's policies -- seen by critics as ethnically divisive -- and advised him to cooperate with the Bosnian state prosecutor over the legality of the recent referendum he had engineered in Republika Srpska. He described the dialogue with Yee as "a harangue organized by U.S. Ambassador in Bosnia Maureen Cormack."

"I said that the current Bosnian crisis is mostly the fault of the outgoing U.S. administration, and I asked them to leave Bosnia and stop interfering. I also made it clear that my party will not give up its policies," Dodik insisted.

He added that Cormack had been a part of the telephone conversation.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo gave its own account of Dodik's exchange with the State Department official and reiterated its commitment to the Dayton peace accords.

"As a sign of continued U.S. commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia, and the strengthening of democratic values and institutions in this country, the Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee and Ambassador Maureen Cormack had a conversation with the president of the Serb Republic in order to express our concern over his recent public statements and actions, and to reiterate our previously stated position -- that refusal to cooperate with the [Bosnian] constitutional court is a violation of the rule of law, and that those responsible must face the consequences. We take very seriously every attempt to undermine the Dayton peace accords."

However, on December 27, Dodik was back in Sarajevo to apply for a regular U.S. visa, as he is determined not to miss the ball.

"What is the purpose of presenting a private invitation to a private function as an official summons extended by the U.S. administration to the presidential inauguration? It doesn't make sense. This was an embarrassment that could have been avoided," Minister Crnadak said in an interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic (right) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Belgrade on December 12.

What to make of Serbian-Russian relations at this critical juncture in global affairs?

The pace of diplomatic visits and gift exchanges has picked up recently, but one gets the sense that both sides doth protest too much. The sudden burst of enthusiasm may be all that it appears, or it may be a sign that relations between Belgrade and Moscow have hit a rocky patch that requires smoothing over with gifts and visits.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is currently in Moscow, and less than 10 days ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Belgrade. Meanwhile, it has been announced that Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, whose visit has been postponed a few times, will visit Belgrade in the first quarter of 2017.

On his recent visit, Lavrov said that "the Kremlin is ready to boost Serbia's defense capacity." In Moscow, Vucic is scheduled to meet with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to finalize the arrangements for a special gift to Serbia of six MiG-29 fighters. The warplanes are out of service in Russia, and Serbia will pay for their overhaul and modernization.

Russian MiG-29 jet fighters
Russian MiG-29 jet fighters

B92 quoted Ivan Safronov, a journalist with the Moscow daily Kommersant, as reporting that Russia's aim is to boost its interests in a region where most countries are now NATO members.

Kommersant also quoted one of Moscow's most reliable friends in Belgrade, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, as saying: "Serbia will never become an anti-Russian state and we will never join sanctions against Russia."

He might as well have said: "We will never be like Montenegro."

Montenegro, Serbia's smaller southern neighbor, is on the brink of becoming NATO's 29th member, pending approval by its parliament and the rest of the current member states of the alliance. Montenegrin prosecutors and other officials in Podgorica, meanwhile, have implicated Russians in an attempted coup on election day whose aim was to assassinate the outgoing prime minister and install a pro-Russian government in Podgorica.

This failure, and Montenegro's likely "defection," may explain Moscow's perceived desire to rein in Serbia and increase Belgrade's dependence on Russian military equipment.

The Russian "gift" of six jets, for which Serbia may in fact end up paying around $50 million according to media estimates of the cost of the necessary overhaul, has nevertheless been welcomed in Serbia.

An opposition lawmaker from Vojvodina, Nenad Canak, is virtually the lone voice expressing concern over his country's dependence on Russia: "It's clear that Russia views Serbia as its colony in the heart of Europe...and it is equally clear that we should be wary of what appears to be a concerted Russian diplomatic offensive [aimed at destabilizing Europe]."

However, Florian Bieber, a Balkan expert and director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, in Austria, disagrees, and says that Russian influence in Serbia is overstated.

"Both Serbia and Russia have much to gain from playing up their ties," Bieber said. "The current Serbian government can pour cold water on its nationalist [and anti-Western] critics, while at the same time using supposed Russian influence as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Europe over EU membership. This is a game of high-stakes poker in which Serbia is bluffing with its Russian hand, which is far weaker than it appears, while Russia gets to appear more influential in the region than it is in reality."

In either case, Russia's gift to Serbia of fighter jets, which not only need refitting but also come with so much else attached, brings to mind the saying that the most expensive lunch you can get is a free lunch.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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