Srpska's Milorad Dodik: No one understands Jews like Serbs

One of the most controversial politicians on the planet expresses his steadfast support for Israel and says he looks forward to visiting the country again. 

 Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (photo credit: BORISLAV ZDRINJA)
Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
(photo credit: BORISLAV ZDRINJA)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is one of the most controversial politicians on the planet. On January 5, the US slapped new sanctions on Dodik and Alternativna Televizija (ATV), a television station close to him, saying his “destabilizing corrupt activities and attempts to dismantle the Dayton Peace Accords, motivated by his own self-interest, threaten the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the entire region.”

Considered close to Russia, China and Serbia, Dodik already had sanctions imposed on him by Washington in 2017 for allegedly obstructing efforts to implement the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the 1992–1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Dodik remains defiant and hurt, noting that the latest US decision came on the eve of the Republic of Srpska’s 30th anniversary. “If they think they will discipline me like this, they are grossly mistaken,” he says,  calling the punitive sanctions against  ATV “an attack on freedom of expression.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbok recently requested fresh European Union sanctions against Dodik, accusing him of pushing for Serb-dominated areas to break away from Bosnia – a claim he denies. But Hungary’s Foreign and Trade Minister Péter Szijjártó made clear that Budapest would veto any such proposal.

Dodik is a longtime ally of Israel. During the 2014 Gaza war, for example, he voiced “unequivocal support” for Israel’s military operation against Palestinian rocket fire and raised the Israeli flag at the presidential palace in Banja Luka, the capital of the Republic of Srpska. “The terrorist threats and actions of extreme Islamic groups are a threat to the entire world,” he wrote in a letter to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 

 Dodik with former foreign minister (and now finance minister) Avigdor Liberman. (credit: BORISLAV ZDRINJA) Dodik with former foreign minister (and now finance minister) Avigdor Liberman. (credit: BORISLAV ZDRINJA)

In a rare interview with The Jerusalem Report, Dodik, 62, expresses his steadfast support for Israel and says he looks forward to visiting the country again. 

“We in the Republic of Srpska perceive Israel as a friendly state, and the Jewish people as a friendly people,” he says. “The suffering that our two peoples experienced in the last century caused by the same armies has brought us closer. That is why no one in this part of the world can better understand the Jewish people as can Serbs, and that is why Israel has our support.”

Dodik has had many connections with Israel, including good relationships with Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and the late president, Shimon Peres. After he initiated two international commissions to probe alleged war crimes in Srebrenica and Sarajevo in 2019, the Republic of Srpska’s  government appointed two Israelis to preside over each: Historian Gideon Greif, a professor at the University of Texas, and Raphael Israeli, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Dodik would particularly like to visit the grave in Jerusalem of Arie Livne, his close adviser and representative in Israel who died in 2020 at the age of 99. “Arie Livne was a friend of mine, but more importantly, he was a friend of the entire Serbian people,” says Dodik. 

With a population of about 1.2 million, the Republic of Srpska is home to most of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Serbs and has a Jewish community of some 120, most of whom live in Banja Luka. 

My interview with Dodik was conducted by email with the assistance of Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to Israel, Dusko Kovacevic, who had Dodik’s answers translated into English.

What is your position on Israel, and what motivates your support for Israel? Are you planning a visit, and if so, when?

I would very much like to visit Israel again. I have been there many times and I have only beautiful memories and impressions from there. We in the Republic of Srpska perceive Israel as a friendly state and the Jewish people as a friendly people. The suffering that our two peoples experienced in the last century caused by the same armies has brought us closer. That is why no one in this part of the world can better understand the Jewish people as can Serbs, and that is why Israel has our support, which we have shown in practical examples whenever we could.

Do you see any parallels between your country and Israel?

Israel and the Republic of Srpska are not in the same position, neither politically nor geopolitically. Israel is a state, we are only a part of BiH (Bosnia and Herzegovina). The Jews were given the right to a state, which they certainly had. However, the Republic of Srpska was left a part of BiH. What intertwines the Serb and Jewish destinies, even though we are not in the same area, is the Muslim extreme factor, which is trying to destabilize Israel, and which we also fought against in the civil war of the 1990s. That is why we may understand better than others what is happening in Israel, and that is why the people of Israel enjoy our support.

 Dodik, alongside Arie Livne, lays a wreath at Yad Vashem during a 2010 visit to Israel. (credit: BORISLAV ZDRINJA) Dodik, alongside Arie Livne, lays a wreath at Yad Vashem during a 2010 visit to Israel. (credit: BORISLAV ZDRINJA)
You had a close relationship with Arie Livne. How do you remember him?

Arie Livne was a friend of mine, but more importantly, he was a friend of the entire Serbian people. That is how I remember him, and that is how Serbs in the Republic of Srpska and Serbia remember him. He was practically a bridge between our countries and peoples, a fighter for justice, a fighter for a more beautiful and just world. I remember him as the oldest young man I hung out with, but also as a wise man from whom you could always hear good advice. I miss him, I admit, because in a short period of time I lost my father and Arie, two important persons in my life. I think that Arie is now in a better and more just place watching and guarding me from there.

What is your relationship with the Jewish community in your country?

It was Arie Livne who organized the activities of the Jewish community in Banja Luka, in which I selflessly helped him from the position of prime minister and later president of the Republic of Srpska. The Jewish community, as a community of good, hardworking and noble people, contributes to making the Republic of Srpska better, and I am very grateful to them for that.

How do you view the current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

The current situation in BiH is in fact a crisis lasting for 26 years. Nothing new is happening today that has not been happening in all the years after the war. We signed an agreement in which we were given rights, and then those rights were taken away from us in favor of Muslims for 26 years. All this was done violating the Constitution. Now they have come to take away our property, and we just said that it could no longer be that way. We want to return to the BiH Constitution, and we will respect everything written there. Everything that is not written there, we are not obliged to obey. BiH is the last colony in Europe in which the people who came from abroad took the lead, who were not elected by anyone in the elections in BiH. We, domestic politicians, just go to the polls, win or lose, but those who are not from BiH, they actually play the leading role. We are tired of such a situation, our basic civil rights have been attacked, and we said this was no longer possible. Another nation in BiH, Croats, are not satisfied with the situation in BiH, but Muslims do not want dialogue; they accuse us of calling for conflict, which of course is not true.

Is the international community justified in their concern that there could be a revival of the conflict?

Their concern has no justification in reality. The commander of EUFOR, the international military force in BiH, recently said there were no threats of conflict in BiH. I trust him. We in the Republic of Srpska believe that political issues should be resolved through political means. However, Muslims often mention war. I think they are doing this to ensure some new and stronger intervention from outside.

What is your position on the sanctions imposed against you by the US?

The explanation of the decision to put me in the sanctions regime said that I had violated the Dayton Agreement, although it was not stated why or when I had done that. This was done literally two days before the new administration of President Donald Trump took office. I see these sanctions as a personal act of several US administration officials who were in BiH, with whom I did not share my views on what BiH should look like. It is never pleasant, especially if they come from such a power as the United States, but life goes on. Even then, as I do now, I did everything I thought was best for the people I represented. History in this area teaches us that the will of a nation cannot be broken by punishment, and I have said this to my American interlocutors several times. Dodik is neither the beginning nor the end of the Republic of Srpska. It will not be possible to take away the will of the whole nation by punishment. Instead of punishment, it would be better if they sat down and thought about how to resolve the essential problem. Because if only one man in BiH is a problem, then BiH really has no problem.

Are you planning to separate Srpska from the rest of the country – or are the reports in the media “fake news”?

Of course it’s fake news. We plan to stay in our country, but in the way we signed in 1995 or in the one we would agree with the other two peoples in BiH. Our primary goal is peace and we will not sacrifice peace for any goal. The second goal is to live in a country where we will have the rights given to us by the BiH Constitution. The third goal is for the state to be legally regulated with an independent and impartial judiciary in accordance with the Constitution, which would provide a good environment not only for citizens but also for those who would come here to invest in businesses. We just want our rights to be respected, and we will respect the rights of others.

What is your vision for your country?

BiH must be free to survive as a country, and that means that it must be released from the international administration as well. We must return to the BiH Constitution because it brought balance – everything that was done outside the Constitution destabilized BiH. No state can function if its Constitution is violated, which is why BiH is dysfunctional. If Serbs and Croats are not equal in BiH with Muslims, the state will have no chance. BiH’s chance is to respect everyone – Muslims, Croats and Serbs. 

What message would you like to convey to our readers in Israel and the US?

I am pleased and very grateful that you have shown interest in our views in this latest crisis. I see this as an expression of your objectivity and commitment to the highest journalistic standards. Today, we are facing not only the problems of the functioning of BiH, but also the media war in which many newsrooms do not want to hear all sides and draw conclusions based on the lack of information from the ground. Therefore, my thanks once again. As far as Israel is concerned, I can only repeat that it is a friendly state with friendly people whom we greatly respect and understand their circumstances. As for the US, I must say that I am sorry that they do not use their power for the benefit of everyone in BiH. They had a vision in 1995 and drafted a Constitution that established a new system and thus stopped the war. I do not understand why they are not exercising their power now to force all actors to abide by that Constitution.  ■