SARAJEVO—Few national leaders would call their own country an “impossible state.” Fewer still would actively advocate for it to be broken up. Almost none would risk a decades-old peace accord to do so. And then there is Bosnia’s Milorad Dodik.
“I am a Serb ... Bosnia is only my place of employment,” Dodik proclaimed just a day after his inauguration as Bosnia’s head of state. A Serb nationalist, he has publicly called for the statelet he comes from, Republika Srpska, to break away from Bosnia. And, as Bosnian president, he has said he will not use his Bosnian passport for overseas travel. It’s these kinds of outbursts—almost Trumpian in their ability to provoke—for which he has become notorious.
The story of Dodik’s rise is one of a far cannier political operator than his brash public image might suggest. He was once hailed as a “breath of fresh air” by Madeleine Albright; she, like others, hoped he symbolized a clean break from the war criminals who had ruled the territory. Two decades on, though, he is seen as a nationalist enfant terrible threatening a fragile peace. What changed, and how?
In some ways, Dodik’s story is a familiar one, that of a politician changing his stripes when the moment suits, and courting Russia as an ally. But here in Bosnia, the stakes are higher, not just for the people who live here, but for the legacy of a significant American foreign-policy achievement, too. By taking aim at the Bosnian state, Dodik is, in effect, targeting the Dayton Accords, one of the signature peace deals of the 20th century. When signed at an American air base in 1995, the agreement ended what had been Europe’s most devastating conflict since the Second World War, one which had cost more than 100,000 lives. (Unsurprisingly, Dodik’s threats to undermine the accords have earned him U.S. sanctions.)