Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


As Genocide Denial Ban is Imposed, Bosnia Braces for a Perfect Storm

A sweeping ban on genocide denial in Bosnia took everyone by surprise on July 23, even the political class. That is because the decision was imposed by Valentin Inzko, an Austrian national acting as the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the highest political authority in the country.

Inzko reluctantly wielded extensive governing powers, including the ability to impose laws and dismiss elected officials, as part of his mandate overseeing the U.S.-brokered peace agreement that ended a bloody war in Bosnia fought largely along ethnic lines. The decision came two weeks after the 26th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Perhaps even more symbolically, it had come just 10 days before Valentin Inzko left office. He was replaced by Christian Schmidt, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party.

The reaction

It would be no exaggeration at all to say that, following the decision, half the country cheers, while the other half mourns. The ethnic division of Bosnia established by the war splits the country into two almost equal halves, one of which is the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska. In 2011, the International Crisis Group wrote: “the Republika Srpska has two chief architects…the first is Radovan Karadzic…the second is Milorad Dodik.”

The former was sentenced to life imprisonment at The Hague on counts of genocide and war crimes, while the latter, a prolific genocide denier, has spent the better part of his political career whitewashing his legacy. Dodik’s decade-and-a-half-long continuous rule has also been replete with allegations of widespread corruption and self-aggrandizement.

Just half an hour after Valentin Inzko announced his decision, Dodik took to the podium to deliver his inchoate reaction. Dodik, whose many speeches could have retroactively served as court evidence that would land him a hefty sentence under the new law, was visibly distraught. In his tirade, he set a course in no uncertain terms for himself and the country. He threatened secession. “I am ready to proclaim independence next week.” This was not the first time he had done so. But with the general elections in Bosnia scheduled for next year, such threats will undoubtedly proliferate. In the evening, his party’s promo video with what appeared to be a call to arms hit the airwaves.

The Bosnian Serb leader is already under U.S. sanctions for violating the peace agreement and threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia. Although he lavished praise on former President Donald Trump, the United States wisely kept the sanctions in place. In 2015, Dodik’s party adopted a resolution in which they vowed to hold an independence referendum three years later, which coincided with the previous general elections. He backed down from the threat, though kept secession on the table. Will it at all be surprising when he promises an independence referendum again ahead of next year’s vote? Only this time, he might just go through with it. In this, he will no doubt have the wholehearted, if tacit, support of Russia and Serbia.

Sailing close to the wind

Curbing speech, no matter how vile and abhorrent, has proven particularly controversial even in the most well-established Western liberal democracies. Even more so when the law was passed not by an elected parliament, but by an internationally appointed figure, seen, however erroneously, by half of the country as an illegitimate foreign imperialist bent on subjugating them.

In many ways, Milorad Dodik is a victim of his own success, having had much to do with creating the boogeyman narrative around the High Representative. Yet he failed to prevent the appointment of Christian Schmidt, despite considerable backing from Russia and China, and now he failed to stop the outlawing of a practice he has staked his career on. Just days before, a rumor made the rounds that he was manhandled by the Interior Minister, a member of his own party. And in a somewhat surprising turn of events, last year’s local elections saw his party lose the stranglehold over the biggest city in the Republika Srpska, one which Dodik considers to be its capital.

Dodik now appears weak, his carefully crafted image of a nationalist strongman suddenly in tatters. The opposition, largely nationalist and right-wing itself, will be quick to exploit that. Soon, they will find themselves in a maelstrom of radicalization that is hard to escape. To come out on top, Milorad Dodik will have to do that which no opposition leader dares to, but which he was so quick to threaten to do in the early morning of July 23.

What’s next for Bosnia?

Inzko’s ban on genocide was nonetheless the right decision, even if long overdue. History shows us that appeasing autocrats is at best counterproductive and at worst morally reprehensible. Yet it also shows us that they will stop at nothing to preserve their power, especially when they feel cornered. Dodik’s histrionics seem to seldom raise eyebrows in Western capitals, but this time around, they ought to listen closely.

My sincerest hope is that the new law will be respected, that genocide in Bosnia will not be controverted anymore, and that those of the likes of Milorad Dodik who do will get their comeuppance. As the very existence of Inzko’s former office attests, Bosnia is a long way from such a utopia. A more likely scenario is that nationalist brinkmanship will ensue. And in unstable and deeply divided societies such as Bosnia, it only takes once for the captain to steer too close to the brink.