Blog: Tadic and Dodik: Friends in torment

November 23, 2010
A recent Balkan Insight article, reporting Serbian President Boris Tadic’s attendance at the inauguration of Milorad Dodik as the new President of the Bosnian Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, on 15 November 2010, described the two men as “close allies”.

Even by the contorted standards of Balkan politics, this assertion conceals some uneasy complexities about which President Tadic, in particular, has grounds to feel uncomfortable.

In one sense Tadic’s presence at the event was entirely natural. Politicians like to be associated with victory, and Dodik had just won a resounding electoral triumph in the midst of economic gloom: no mean feat for a politician in any country.

Tadic sorely hopes he can deliver the same feat in slightly more than a year. Given the rotten current condition of Serbia’s economy and its fractured politics between urban and rural interests, north and south, Vojvodina and Belgrade, and those looking east and west, that will be no small achievement.

From 2001 to 2008, Serbia survived on a series of weak and fractious coalitions. There is a real chance that its politics will revert to that model from early 2012.

These two individuals are in each in their own way remarkable.

However, anyone who knows them will appreciate that beyond the facts that both are very intelligent and very rich, they have little in common.

Tadic is an urban sophisticate, comfortable in Belgrade’s finest restaurants and the world’s most powerful capitals. Dodik is a bucolic bruiser who periodically cunningly cultivates the role of the buffoon.

The segments of the electorate to which they appeal are likewise different. Tadic appeals to the educated middle classes who hope that their penury can be lifted by Tadic’s rapprochement with the West.

Dodik appeals to Republika Srpska’s rural population who trust him to defend their land and way of life against the imagined encroaching Muslim hordes.

They were at odds just earlier this year, Tadic pushing a resolution regretting the 1995 Srebrenica massacre through Serbia’s parliament just as Dodik was denying that genocide took place. It is easy to imagine each of the two men was horrified by what the other was doing.

Yet the two men need one-another. Tadic probably needs Dodik more than vice-versa. Under relentless domestic political attack for his apparent compromise with the West over Kosovo, Tadic is in danger of losing popular support amid a crest of nationalist discontent.

His association with Dodik fortifies his nationalist credentials just as Dodik is talking of Bosnia’s collapse as a central state and the possibility of the Bosnian Serb entity’s secession.

By associating himself with such an uncompromising agenda, Tadic can appeal to the more inflexible elements of his domestic electorate. To Western diplomats, he can spin the line that Bosnia is better off if he engages with Dodik than should he leave the Banja Luka to its devices.

Dodik too needs Serbia, if not Tadic. His aspirations to further dismantle Bosnia’s central state require at least tacit Serbian support if they are to lead to their logical conclusion.

Western diplomats will put all the pressure they can on Republika Srpska to prevent its secession; by refusing to support the entity’s centrifugal agenda, Serbia could deprive the Republika Srpska of its only natural friend in the region and lock it into its current unhappy marriage with the Bosniak-Croat Federation indefinitely.

In the long run Dodik would probably prefer a less Western-leaning leader in Belgrade who is less likely to sell out the Republika Srpska in pursuit of the goal of EU membership.

But for now he must sit in an uneasy alliance with Tadic, knowing that the Serbian President holds the key to the lock holding Bosnia’s entities together. Given his weakness on Kosovo, Tadic cannot be seen to abandon Bosnia’s Serbs as well. Thus, he prevaricates between the competing imperatives of domestic politics and international relations.

Tadic and Dodik are two of the region’s most capable politicians.

Nevertheless, their joint interests will persist only amid high tension: between the message of Serbian unity, which draws them together; and the desire for Serbian integration with Western Europe, which will drive them apart.

Ultimately Dodik may outlast Tadic, because his political constituency is more unified and its demands – which on the whole he satisfies – are simpler.

In Serbia, many are prepared to swallow nationalist pride to embrace economic reform, but many are not, and thus Serbia’s politics is divided.

In Republika Srpska, the political scales are a lot less finely balanced. Fear of the other half of Bosnia seems likely to keep Dodik, or other politicians with equally aggressive agendas, in power there indefinitely.

The author is an international lawyer based in Geneva, and formerly worked as the Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brcko. His book on post-war Bosnia, A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia, is published by I.B.Tauris. His new book, Mirages of International Justice: The Elusive Pursuit of a Transnational Legal Order, will be published by Edward Elgar in January.