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Dodik in the Dock: Pushing the Limits of Bosnia's Framework

By Tobias Pardoen

Edited by Melanie Fourtanier

In the complex world of Balkan politics, the trial of Milorad Dodik is an important moment for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Accused of disregarding the authority of the High Representative, Dodik's legal battle illuminates the complicated past that continues to shape the region. As Bosnia teeters on the brink of renewed turmoil, the outcome of Dodik's trial holds profound implications for the country's future trajectory and the broader stability of the Balkans.

© AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

Navigating the Legacy of the Dayton Accords

The modest-sized state of Bosnia and Herzegovina has a complex constitutional structure based on the US-brokered Dayton Accords. The peace agreement ceased hostilities in Bosnia, forming a state with two entities: Republika Srpska (RS) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The power in the latter is alternated between Bosniaks and Croats, whereas Serbs dominate the RS.

The national government, overseeing both entities, operates on a rotational basis, with leadership changing every eight months from among a Serb, a Muslim, and a Croat. Tasked with ensuring the implementation of the peace agreement, a foreign "High Representative" possesses de facto veto powers in domestic politics. Christian Schmidt, a former German Federal Minister, currently holds the position.

Through instruments such as the High Representative function and NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR), the West attempted to prevent the recurrence of turmoil and bloodshed of the Bosnian War (1992-1995). Over half of the population fled the country, with an estimated 100,000 people killed, of which 80 per cent were Bosniaks. As confirmed in the rulings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), multiple war crimes were committed during the conflict -  including genocide and crimes against humanity.

Nevertheless, by 2006, the prevailing belief in the West was that the enforcement mechanisms established by the Dayton Agreement were no longer necessary. Brussels and the US trusted in Bosnia's EU objectives, foreseeing Balkan leaders taking the initiative in internal reform, thus eliminating the need for Western oversight.

With Western involvement reduced, ethno-nationalist leaders reclaimed control, backed by supporters in Zagreb and Belgrade. Both Serbian and Croatian governments have interfered with institutional matters in Bosnia ever since.

The Rise of Milorad Dodik

Under these circumstances, Milorad Dodik rose to prominence as a leading Bosnian-Serb figure. Having become Prime Minister of the Republic of Srpska Government for the third time in 2006, he ascended to the presidency in October 2010, and secured re-election in 2014 and 2022. Additionally, he served as the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina after the 2018 general elections.

Over this time, Dodik, formerly revered as a symbol of change in Washington, has reshaped his identity within an atmosphere marked by the surge of nationalism, corruption, and organised crime. He systematically denies the Srebrenica genocide, supports the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina, asserts that "BiH is a failed project”, and glorifies war criminals.

More so, he does not hesitate to align himself with controversial foreign figures. He maintains close ties with Putin, receiving an award from him as recently as 2023, and counts China’s Xi Jinping, Azeri Ilham Aliyev, and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán among his friends. However, his closest relationship may be with the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Both politicians advocate for what is commonly referred to as the “Greater Serbia”, an agenda to establish an ethnically homogeneous and territorially expanded Serbia.

Despite the warnings, Western policies in Bosnia remain stagnant. Diplomatic condemnations, sanctions against Dodik's regime, and project cancellations represent the limit for the West for now. While the Office of the High Representative had the tools at its disposal to address Dodik's actions, it did little to use them.

However, unlike his predecessors, the current HR Schmidt did not hesitate to exercise his powers as he enforced a series of constitutional changes that sparked national outrage. Dodik expressed his disapproval of Schmidt as well. He declared his refusal to accept decisions made by the "fake high representative" and escalated by issuing a warning of potential arrest and deportation if Schmidt attempted to enter Republika Srpska. Yet, crucially, Dodik's attacks transcended mere rhetoric.

Implications Beyond Borders

In July 2023, Dodik proposed two laws allowing Republika Srpska to ignore Schmidt's decisions. The Bosnian Serb leader decreed that rulings from the High Representative and Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina hold no sway in the Republika Sprska's territory. The two laws counter the constitutional structure of post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Consequently, Schmidt promptly nullified both laws and amended the criminal code to punish officials who defied his directives with up to five years' imprisonment and a ban on holding public offices. Nevertheless, Dodik signed both laws into force and Bosnian prosecutors filed charges against Dodik. A Bosnian court confirmed the indictment in September 2023.

Although the two laws counter the constitutional structure of post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dodik's defence dismissed the evidence as unfounded, and Dodik himself stated he ‘’did not understand the charges.’’ 

The trial was ultimately postponed three times because Dodik's defence unsuccessfully requested the disqualification of Judge Mirsad Strike and seven other judges from the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. So, the trial began on February 5th, 2024.

The implications of Dodik's trial reach far beyond his case into questions about Bosnia's future. Since Dodik's legislation directly challenges the Dayton Accords, a backbone of the Bosnian State, his trial calls into question the very integrity of those accords, and possibly, of that state. Given the polarization of Bosnian society and the broader region, increased instability risks exacerbating existing challenges and escalating their costs.

Nonetheless, dubbing Dodik’s trial as the Trial of the Dayton Accords (or of the Bosnian state) would be a stretch. Challenges to the Dayton Accords have endured for years, dealing with various obstacles. Yet, with each setback, the question persists: can the accords withstand further challenges, or will the next one deal the final blow?

A Microcosm of Divided Bosnia

Beyond the legal proceedings, Dodik's trial carries weighty implications, from questioning Schmidt's legitimacy to threatening Bosnia's future stability. But it also represents a microcosm of the deep-rooted divisions in the country. Under growing polarising tensions and external pressures, Bosnia navigates a precarious path toward reconciliation and reform. In this turbulent landscape, the outcome of Dodik's trial holds significant consequences, not just for Bosnia, but for the broader Balkan region.

Sources: Al Jazeera Balkans, Deutsche Welle, Der Spiegel, Foreign Policy, N1, Reuters, and Washington Post.

Written by Tobias Pardoen

February 2024

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