A Genocide Denier Threatens to Unravel 25 Years of Peace in the Balkans
A Bosnian Muslim woman cries between the graves her father and two grandfathers, and other close relatives, at the cemetery near Srebrenica, in 2020, 25 years after the massacre of 8,00 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. Photo: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images

A Genocide Denier Threatens to Unravel 25 Years of Peace in the Balkans

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik's confusing manoeuvres have sparked fears of a fresh conflict, and memories of an old one.

SARAJEVO – Along the Miljacka River path that cuts through the centre of Sarajevo, you can see the scars of the siege that killed 10,000 people in the early 90s. Though the city is mostly rebuilt and thriving, on the walls facing the river and the old front lines, the cosmetic damage of bullet holes and shell impacts remains. This European capital hasn’t been a war zone for 25 years, but it's still pretty obvious that it used to be.

Advertisement

From the path, you also have a clear view of the spots along the Trebevic Mountains overlooking the city where Bosnian Serb snipers and artillery units built positions to lay seige on the mostly Bosnian Muslim population that they terrorised for nearly three years. Today it’s dotted with cable cars and nice restaurants with stunning views, but over that tree line is the invisible border between the two largely autonomous entities that make up this country: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the increasingly restless Republika Srpska. 

Twenty-five years after the war was ended by US and NATO soldiers, and a new state was formed in the Balkans, some people in Bosnia have begun to see telltale signs of a new conflict. 

The view towards the Trebevic Mountains and what were the Bosnian Serb sniper positions. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

The view towards the Trebevic Mountains and what were the Bosnian Serb sniper positions. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

Milorad Dodik, 62, the Bosnian Serb representative of Bosnia’s complicated three-way presidency, is now seen by many inside and outside the country as a threat to the one major accomplishment that peace accords in the 90s achieved: the fighting stopped.

On Friday he plans to instruct his Parliament to undo several ties that have kept the Republika Srpska alongside the rest of Bosnia for the last quarter of a century, such as leaving key legal and security arrangements, as well as the national army. Most alarmingly, Dodik wants his own army at the same moment that Bosnian Serb politicians have decided to reject laws that make genocide denial a crime. You won’t find many people in Bosnia who think these things are unrelated.

Advertisement

“Politicians are growing too old and too sick and too tired, but each has accumulated so many skeletons in their closets that they think they’ll never be safe.”

Dodik’s ultimate aims are unclear. Is it full autonomy for the Republika Srpska? Or an eventual union with Serbia? Or an as-yet-unclear plan to assume full power in the Republika Srpska that would leave him above the law for life?

Maybe Dodik sees opportunities in a region that’s not going to be joining the EU anytime soon, surrounded by semi-autocratic regimes like Hungary and Serbia and a resurgent right wing in other parts of Europe, while a distant, disinterested America seems unwilling to engage let alone enforce anything in a place it basically sees as Europe’s problem. 

“​Dodik is doing this because he’s by far the most capable politician in the country,” said political analyst Srecko Latal of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network over a Zoom call as he finished a week of COVID isolation. “He just hasn’t used it in a positive way. He’s verbalising things in a [dangerous] way, as well as using truthful things he’s manipulated in a way that suits him.”

It could be as simple as Dodik fearing an existence without a security service loyal only to him.

“​​Generation postwar politicians are growing too old and too sick and too tired, but each has accumulated so many skeletons in their closets that they think they’ll never be safe [in retirement],” said Latal, citing polls that show Dodik losing support in the RS. “They’re all slowly losing power but can’t leave power because they have too many enemies.” 

Advertisement

It’s not an uncommon problem, and it’s one faced by a number of regional leaders in Hungary, Serbia, Turkey and even Russia itself, where if it's not already too late for the bosses to leave power and be safe, it's very close. 

A "Sarajevo Rose" – where mortar impacts have been filled in with red tiles. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

A "Sarajevo Rose" – where mortar impacts have been filled in with red tiles. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

So maybe that’s why he’s engaging in what many see as outright genocide denial about the role of the Bosnian Serbs during the civil war. Dodik claims his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) is ready to introduce the legislation to withdraw from key courts and the security services, all moves that essentially violate 25-year-old peace agreements that created a country. 

People here remember that the last time Bosnian Serbs tried to shift some borders and increase their political autonomy, over 100,000 people died in a war that created the most refugees in Europe since World War II.

The state of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), home to 3.2 million people, is made up of three entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republika Srpska, and the tiny Brcko District. It’s also home to three main ethnic groups: Bosniaks (commonly known as Bosnian Muslims in English), Serbs, and Croats. Most of Bosnia and Herzegovina's Serb population lives in Republika Srpska.

The state was forged at gunpoint by the US and NATO peacekeeping troops who stopped the war in 1995. The Dayton Agreement peace accords that followed were meant to be a new start for an old country that formed out of the bloodshed of Yugoslavia’s collapse.

Advertisement

But despite billions of euros in spending by the typical acronymic clusterfuck of international do-gooders like the UN, OSCE, NATO and US AID, and the efforts of an army of lawyers, high commissioners, special representatives, bureaucrats, diplomats and newly minted international development experts from Europe’s mid-tier universities, the effort to create a useful centralised state anyone really wants to live in failed. 

Now, 25 years later, there’s peace and not much else. Endless dissertations have been written about the history of this peace even as it continues to play out. And while dysfunction, posturing and hinted threats come from all three sides, Bosnian Serb, Croat and Muslims resent their own fickle corrupt leadership as much as their supposed enemies. 

What feels different this time is that Dodik appears willing to escalate the mess in a new and dangerous way. In July, he and other Bosnian Serb politicians rejected language that would have made it a crime to deny genocide happened during the war. No one can deny a genocide took place, considering all three sides variously conducted mass killings and ethnic cleansing against each other. 

GettyImages-949699498.jpg

Milorad Dodik. Photo: ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images

There’s also perhaps the most exhaustively documented war crime in human history, where in the summer of 1995 the Bosnian Serb army led by now-convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic separated about 8,000 unarmed men and boys from the surrendering population of the tiny Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which had held out for three years as an enclave deep inside what would later become the RS, and murdered them more or less in plain view of Dutch UN peacekeepers.

Advertisement

That crime and the failure of the international community to stop it was so well documented that an entire Dutch government had to resign over it. But now the RS government is demanding the legal right to say it never happened, and everyone is worried what that might mean. Making it acceptable to argue the genocide, along with the proposed moves to leave the army, as well as the court system that runs both the federal police and national intelligence services, would starkly diminish the power of the post-Dayton state. 

“It feels like each and every ethnic leadership for itself,” said the political analyst Latal of Dodik’s proposal.

“But you can see RS is not as functional as the Federation [of Bosnia and Herzegovina],” he said. “The Federation side collects more than twice the taxes as the RS, which could not survive without the money that Dodik personally makes appear as one of the richest political figures in all the Balkans.”

Nobody in Bosnia had a hard figure on Dodik’s wealth, but every political type or journalist VICE World News spoke to agreed that he personally controlled multiple hundreds of millions of euros. At least.

Just before the riverside neighbourhood of Grbavica, where the Bosnian Serbs had pushed to within metres of the city centre and created the infamous “Sniper Alley” around the government buildings and international press cameras set up in a Holiday Inn, is the Jewish Community Centre of Sarajevo. I was there to talk to its venerable head, Jakob Finci.

Advertisement

Finci had stayed during the siege despite ample opportunities to flee to anywhere safe he wanted. He managed to save one of the oldest Sephardic Torahs from Bosnian Serb artillery fire, became an ambassador to Switzerland, and knows world leaders like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and a dozen others. He has also been a go-to phone call for journalists and diplomats trying to make sense of the deeply complicated place for decades – I’ve known Finci for almost 20 years. He even tried to run for president of Bosnia, offering himself as a compromise sectarian candidate figuring nobody would be threatened by the estimated 500 to 1,000 Jews living in the country. 

Nearly 80, Finci still comes into the office every day, and on the day of our meeting, the first day of Hanukkah, he was in a typically good mood. He tried to start with the positives.

image_123986672 (5).JPG

A view from what was known as "Sniper Alley." Photo: Mitchell Prothero

“It’s 2022, not 1992, and this is a very different place now,” said Finci over his coffee. “There’s fewer people now that anyone more or less can go to Germany and Austria to work.”

He’s talking about recent figures from the World Bank and other surveys that show most of working-age Bosnia has left for the better economies of nearby EU countries, where refugees from the civil war set up vibrant and successful diaspora communities.

“The Serbs never had enough people to win the war even back then,” Finci said. “Now they have even fewer and don’t have all the weapons left behind by the departing JNA [the Yugoslav National Army].”

Advertisement

The JNA was a Cold War–style conventional behemoth equipped with all sorts of heavy weapons. When Bosnia declared independence in 1992, the Serbian officers, who dominated the JNA’s ranks, often happily turned over control of weapons stockpiles, tanks and artillery to the Bosnian Serbs as they left. The Serbs might have been outnumbered in the 1990s, but they outgunned everyone else until the very end.  

But the conversation felt more like both of us trying to convince ourselves about things that we couldn’t know, like what Vladimir Putin wanted out of all this (while not geographically close, Russia and Serbia have deep historic and cultural ties). The Russian president met Dodik in Moscow on the 2nd of December, in a private meeting that wasn’t on Putin’s presidential schedule. And the Kremlin didn’t release any readouts of the meeting, allowing Dodik to claim that Putin supported his efforts over concerns about the “liberalisation” of the Dayton agreement. 

A war memorial in downtown Sarajevo, with an Iranian cultural centre in the background. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

A war memorial in downtown Sarajevo, with an Iranian cultural centre in the background. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

Finci said it was technically impossible for the RS to leave BiH because of World Bank debt. But he accepted the potential for genocide denial and a separate RS army to draw in Bosnia’s much larger neighbours yet again.

Finally after a bit of speculation, Finci leaned in closer with an impish grin and a conspiratorial tone.

“If you manage to figure out what Dodik really wants or what might happen, I suggest you call me so we can take a plane to Monte Carlo and live off playing roulette,” he said, laughing and making a spinning motion with his hand.

Advertisement

And with that, he had to go meet the Turkish ambassador to BiH, who himself was rather concerned about what everything meant.

As dysfunctional as the BiH and its mercurial ethnic statelets might have been since Dayton, until now people haven’t worried much about a renewed outbreak of violence. Their energy and anger has instead been focused upon the endemic corruption in all three sides – Serb, Croat and Bosniak – of the various governments strangling the economy. The World Bank’s estimates that almost a quarter of Bosnia’s 1995 population has voted with its feet and emigrated is a reaction to the humiliating patronage networks that demand loyalty to sectarian leaders. The billions in international aid has dried up, leaving voracious local bosses to shake down the locals more and more.

“Want to open a pub in Sarajevo?” one local businessman said in a bar he’d opened a year earlier. “You have to pay – and I mean pay everyone. Nobody can afford the bribes themselves, so you end up taking on members of the political mafias as partners. But even then you still pay. The rule is supposed to be if you pay the big boss or take a partner, that's it. But here no matter what you do, some new guy comes and demands money. It never ends.”

Real estate development gets clobbered by crooks in Sarajevo, where only those with government connections and deep-pocketed foreign-investor backing can survive the demands for bribes. But just a few hours away from the city, deep into the hills of the eastern RS, past the old ski runs from the 1984 Winter Olympics and along the Drina River that serves as the border to Serbia, the local industries are old-school rural stuff like bauxite mining and timber cutting that’s not always legal. All of this is controlled by local strongmen loyal to Dodik, who have little interest in adhering to environmental standards or contributing to the public purse. It’s just a race to extract money from nature.

Advertisement
Republika Srpska. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

Republika Srpska. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

Standing alongside a highway in the rural RS one afternoon watching trucks pass by loaded with fresh-cut timber, one Bosnian Serb said that perhaps one in four of the trucks was from a legal cut and would pay taxes; the rest were almost certainly illegal and headed over the nearby border with Serbia for processing or export. Not only are the forests being destroyed at a rapid rate in Bosnia’s heavily wooded mountains but taxpayers won’t even get their share of the revenue, said the local, who of course fears his local strongman a bit too much to be named in the media.

Corruption is as old a problem in the Balkans as sectarian violence, so an increase in corruption alone doesn’t scare people. What does scare some is an increasingly authoritarian leader in the RS capital of Banja Luka threatening to undo much of the central authority keeping the peace because cutting the army in half can only mean a weaker BiH unable to keep its parts in line. So people have begun to think the unthinkable once again.

“And of course when Biden tried to turn back, Dodik had a question: ‘What if Trump comes back?’”

“It’s no longer unthinkable that Dayton might collapse and violence could be possible is how RS and [Croat] officials now talk about it,” said Adi Cerimajic, a former Foreign Ministry official now at the European Stability Initiative. “That’s new from three years ago. Ninety percent of the problem doesn’t even come from inside the BiH.”

Advertisement

One massive problem, said Cerimajic, was the consequences of an August 2018 statement made by John Bolton, then Donald Trump’s national security adviser, in support of moving the Kosovo-Serbia borders around if both sides managed to agree. 

“We would not stand in the way, and I don’t think anybody in Europe would stand in the way if the two parties to the dispute reached a mutually satisfactory settlement,” Bolton said at the time, sending many in the EU and the Balkans into a panic. 

It didn’t sound like a big deal to American ears, but then German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to roll it back – not allowing such border changes has been a key part of the post-1990 strategy in the multiethnic sections of the Balkans. The simple reason: Such ideas tend to encourage hyper-nationalists and are perceived as rewarding military aggression and ethnic cleansing. 

A cafe in Sarajevo with a view towards the mountains where artillery pounded the city during the war. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

A cafe in Sarajevo with a view towards the mountains where artillery pounded the city during the war. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

Seized upon by Dodik and other illiberal leaders in Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey as something to consider regionwide, the comment that Bolton only intended to refer to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute was seen as an opening to redrawing the regional borders that many Bosnians died to protect. 

“President Biden has since rolled back, but the genie is out of the bottle in the eyes of many illiberals and opponents of Dayton,” said Cerimajic. “It had been a consistent policy under Obama, Bush and Clinton… the same position until Trump changed it. And of course when Biden tried to turn back, Dodik had a question: ‘What if Trump comes back?’”

Advertisement

Latal, of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, cuts the international community more of a break than Cerimajic and thinks local actors are overall more responsible for the recent tensions. But he said that the EU’s failure to see enlargement in political rather than technocratic terms was a massive misstep.

“After the breakup of Balkans [in the 1990s], it needed broad borders to enable the Balkan ghosts to be put at rest,” Latal said, pointing out that the eventual move of the EU to stop talking about letting in new members spurred less democratic, more sectarian options within the smaller borders and markets.

“It’s a total collapse of EU policy because of internal issues over the last three years,” said Cerimajic. “In the past, the people who spoke against enlargement were right-wing extremists. Now it’s pro-liberal [French President Emmanuel] Macron and a bunch of liberals in Berlin.”

Telling all the countries looking to join the EU that they’d have to wait five to ten years at the earliest forced the hands of Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia because, “these leaders don’t have ten years to deliver to their people,” said Cerimajic.

“They started looking at new options like nationalism, sectarianism and, most importantly,  corruption,” said Latal.

And the perception that it’s only an economic and technocratic problem, in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis that brought over a million mostly Muslim refugees to Europe to the horror of the continent’s right, could be naive. 

Advertisement
Sarajevo pictured through a broken window in the Parliament building in 1996. Photo: Roger Lemoyne/Liaison

Sarajevo pictured through a broken window in the Parliament building in 1996. Photo: Roger Lemoyne/Liaison

“I’ll tell you why Macron doesn’t want to let in Bosnia. When I served on the UN mission to East Timor in 1999, a French officer was very clear about why it would never happen,” said Dragan Miokovic, a former Bosnian police officer and war crimes investigator. “He told me France has millions of Muslims but they’re Arabs and thus you can see them,” he continued. “They can’t let in a million Bosnian Muslims because they’re 2 metres tall and have blue eyes. Terrorists could too easily blend in. And this was before 9/11 and before 2015. Do you think they’re less or more worried now?”

“I know he was telling the truth, because he was talking to a Serb,” Miokovic said. “He didn’t realise my wife is Muslim and I was born in Sarajevo, where I fought for Bosnia alongside my Muslim countrymen.”

A hulking one-eyed retired police official, Miokovic was a street cop in 1992, responsible for the areas around Sarajevo’s Stari Grad neighbourhood, and never gave much thought to his Serb background or his Muslim wife and mixed-religion infant daughters until he received a phone call on a Thursday morning in April that year.

“I hear this voice and the accent is Belgrade,” he said one afternoon in a Vienna-style coffee shop near his home in the capital. “It's from State Security, the big national police of Yugoslavia, and I cannot believe it. Why would these guys call some street cop across the country in Sarajevo? Does the FBI just call up street cops for coffee?”

Advertisement

“I was police, not a Serb, [so] we took our guns and fought to the death to protect Sarajevo.”

The caller suggested they meet near his police station, and Miokovic, confused and intrigued, agreed. What he heard would not only change his life and take his right eye but also eventually reshape the region.

“It’s these two guys from State Security, and they’re nice enough, very polite,” he said. “They tell me, ‘Dragan, you are our Serb brother and we are here to warn you: Two Muslims in your police station plan to assassinate you tomorrow to drive the Serbs from Sarajevo.”

Miokovic stayed quiet.

“‘We need you to get your family together and come tomorrow morning to a police station,’ they told me a place up the mountain towards [the wartime Bosnian Serb stronghold of] Pale,” he said. “‘For my safety,’ they kept telling me.”

He tilted his head to stare at me with his good eye.

“Finally I told them no problem, me and my family will be there tomorrow,” he said with a grin. “Just as soon as you tell me the names of the two men so I can fucking kill them right now. Then I will come to the new police station.”

image_123986672 (6).JPG

"Sniper Alley" today. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

“They were lying, these people I had known my entire life. I was married to a Muslim,” he said. 

The next day, Friday, only Miokovic and one other Bosnian Serb policeman came to work. All the other Serbs had left. 

“On Saturday, the Serbs came over the mountain and began the siege,” he said. “I was police, not a Serb, [so] we took our guns and fought to the death to protect Sarajevo.”

Advertisement

And as bad as the entire war was through the country, those first months were brutal before the Bosniaks could form an army. They faced Bosnian Serb paramilitaries heavily armed with Yugoslav National Army weapons that almost overwhelmed the lightly armed ad-hoc Bosniak mix of police, some former soldiers, gangsters and anyone else with a gun.

The Grbavica neighbourhood near where we met is where the Bosnian Serb fighters managed to enter the city, leading to house-to-house fighting, where the killing was face to face.

“For one month we fought over a building with three doors, just a block long,” he said. “We had a door, they had a door, and we fought for the door in the middle for one month and lost 16 men. Two months into the war, I was six metres from a Serb – I still see his face – and both our guns were up, he fired first and missed. But the ricochet hit me in the face, took my eye and settled a few millimetres from my brain. My last thought for the month I was in the coma was that shooting me was the last thing he ever did. Because my shot didn’t miss.”

When he recovered, Miokovic went on to be a homicide detective for the rest of the siege, where he would treat the killing of civilians by sniper fire or artillery shells as homicides, before insisting on testifying at the war crime tribunals in public and under his own name. 

“So Serbs could see a Serb calling them a criminal for what they did,” he explained before he pointed in the direction of the now-unmarked RS border about a kilometre away. “And if those criminals want to set up a new checkpoint over there, I am retired, but we know how to clear them away.” 

One night I drove three hours out from Sarajevo through darkly wooded hills to Srebrenica, whose forests hide the evidence of a massacre in shallow mass graves. I was there to meet Emir Suljagić, who manages the town’s war crimes memorial. 

Suljagić had worked as a translator for U.N. peacekeepers in his hometown of Srebrenica, and he’d had a brutal front-row view of the massacre of his friends and neighbours by Mladic’s men in 1995. He would go on to serve in the Bosnian defence ministry and also work as a journalist. 

image_123986672 (1).JPG

The entrance to Srebrenica at dusk. Photo: Mitchell Prothero

In his office, Suljagić said that Bosnians had not died by the tens of thousands fighting to keep the country together only to let the aggressors eventually walk off with a third of the country.

“I don’t give a fuck about the courts or the taxes or whatever else the arguments are about,” he said. “I care about the army. If the Serbs leave the army of the BiH, they’ll need an army and security forces. So they will eventually re-form this army of Ratko Mladic.”

“Every army needs a doctrine, right? Doctrine explains who you will fight and how,” he continued. “What’s the army of Ratko Mladic going to have as a doctrine? We know what their doctrine is, and it's to fucking kill me and my family.”

Suljagić said in his time at the defence ministry, he realised something that shocked him about the fellow countrymen who he felt had tried to kill him in the 1990s.

“The best people in this country are the Serbs and Croats who serve in the national army,” he emphatically said. “These are the people who believe in us as a nation and unified people, and they take so much shit for it from their own communities. Without these people working together in an army, the idea of Bosnia will become too weak.

“And then, only then, could there be some fighting,” he said. “As long as the BiH has a multiethnic army, I think it's impossible. Take it away and… I don’t know.”

He looked sad.