Putin’s Most Loyal Balkan Client

Hard-line Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has given the Russian president a firm foothold in the Balkans.

By , an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Sciences.
Dodik and Putin smile and shake hands.
Dodik and Putin smile and shake hands.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik in Belgrade, Serbia, on Jan. 17, 2019. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP via Getty Images

On Sept. 9, the Bosnia and Herzegovina Football Federation announced that the men’s national soccer team would play a friendly match with Russia in St. Petersburg on Nov. 19. This news sent shockwaves among the country’s Bosniaks and other citizens from all walks of life. Bosnia’s best-known players, Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic, strongly criticized the decision. Dzeko was adamant that he would not be playing in the match and reiterated his support for the Ukrainian people.

This decision was no thoughtless mistake. The head of Bosnia’s soccer federation is Vico Zeljkovic, the nephew of the hard-line Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik. Over the course of the past several years, Dodik has emerged as the most pro-Russian politician not only in Bosnia but also in the Balkans. Croatian President Zoran Milanovic and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic have pro-Russian sentiments, but Dodik is leading the pack.

Once a self-proclaimed social democrat, Dodik has shown himself to be an ardent nationalist keen on Republika Srpska’s secession from Bosnia. (Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, as well as a self-governing administrative unit, Brcko District.) Since his rise to power in Republika Srpska in 2006, Dodik has been an undisputed leader of this part of Bosnia. Over the last four years, Dodik has been a member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency and has worked consistently to undermine the country in a bid to weaken it and pursue his separatist agenda. This makes him perhaps the only political leader in the world who is working tirelessly to ruin the country over which he is officially presiding.

On Sept. 9, the Bosnia and Herzegovina Football Federation announced that the men’s national soccer team would play a friendly match with Russia in St. Petersburg on Nov. 19. This news sent shockwaves among the country’s Bosniaks and other citizens from all walks of life. Bosnia’s best-known players, Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic, strongly criticized the decision. Dzeko was adamant that he would not be playing in the match and reiterated his support for the Ukrainian people.

This decision was no thoughtless mistake. The head of Bosnia’s soccer federation is Vico Zeljkovic, the nephew of the hard-line Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik. Over the course of the past several years, Dodik has emerged as the most pro-Russian politician not only in Bosnia but also in the Balkans. Croatian President Zoran Milanovic and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic have pro-Russian sentiments, but Dodik is leading the pack.

Once a self-proclaimed social democrat, Dodik has shown himself to be an ardent nationalist keen on Republika Srpska’s secession from Bosnia. (Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, as well as a self-governing administrative unit, Brcko District.) Since his rise to power in Republika Srpska in 2006, Dodik has been an undisputed leader of this part of Bosnia. Over the last four years, Dodik has been a member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency and has worked consistently to undermine the country in a bid to weaken it and pursue his separatist agenda. This makes him perhaps the only political leader in the world who is working tirelessly to ruin the country over which he is officially presiding.

Late last year, he set in motion a process that would lead to Republika Srpska’s secession. What stopped him from going through with it—by his own candid admission—was Russia’s war in Ukraine, though he did note that the war only postponed his plans.

Dodik’s term in Bosnia’s presidency is reaching its end following the country’s Oct. 2 elections. This time he did not run for the top job but has instead focused his energies on preserving his power in Republika Srpska and running it as his fiefdom. This means that this Bosnian entity will remain pro-Russian and continue to provide Russia with a firm foothold in the Balkans.


Dodik’s policies and politics have become a source of instability in Bosnia and the region. In early 2017, the United States imposed sanctions on Dodik in response to a referendum he held in Republika Srpska on marking Jan. 9 as “Republika Srpska Day.” On that date in 1992, the Bosnian Serb rebels proceeded to establish their own illegal parallel institutions that led to the war and genocidal violence.

This January, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Dodik for obstructing the implementation of the 1995 Dayton Accords. Specifically, he had undertaken steps to take away state competencies and transfer them to Republika Srpska, a move that the Office of the High Representative, which oversees the civilian implementation of the Dayton Accords, opposed and one that generated political stalemate. The United Kingdom followed suit by adding its own sanctions on Dodik in April.

As he bides his time for secession, Dodik is seeking to turn Bosnia into a frozen conflict. Taking his cue from similar conflicts in the post-Soviet space, the separatist leader is building up his own para-statelet.

Along with pursuing extremist politics, Dodik has been cultivating ever-closer ties to Russia. Dodik opened a Republika Srpska representative office in Moscow in an effort to pursue an alternative foreign policy to that of official Sarajevo. He has visited Russia on a number of occasions over the past decade and is reported to have met Russian President Vladimir Putin seven times since 2014.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Dodik stood by Putin. Unlike Bosnia’s other presidency members, Sefik Dzaferovic and Zeljko Komsic, who condemned the invasion, Dodik has steadfastly refused to do so. In fact, he has openly supported the Russian invasion, calling it “justified.” When many European politicians shunned the Russian president following the invasion, Dodik met with Putin in June and then again in September. He also supported the holding of referendums in the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

Dodik’s turn to Russia is a departure from his politics of the late 1990s. Back then, he was seen as a reformer and was even praised by then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as a “breath of fresh air.” Much has changed since then. In 1998, Dodik presented himself as a moderate and was at the time supported by international officials in Bosnia who wielded significant power in the postwar country. However, his return to the post of Republika Srpska’s prime minister in 2006 marked a new era of hard-line separatist nationalism. And for the past 16 years, Dodik has reigned supreme in Republika Srpska.

Showing his true face, the Bosnian Serb leader turned out to be an avowed autocrat at home and a key pro-Russian politician in this corner of Europe. Dodik is now a fiercely anti-Western politician who opposes Bosnia’s quest for accession to NATO—mirroring Moscow’s view.

This is all a source of concern for the majority of Bosnia’s citizens, who favor a pro-Western course. A recent International Republican Institute survey found that 58 percent of Bosniaks and 52 percent of Croats favored a pro-European Union and pro-Western policy. The country’s accession to NATO is supported by 69 percent of Bosniaks and 77 percent of Croats but only 8 percent of Bosnian Serbs.

A number of analysts have pointed out that, in addition to opposing Bosnia’s integration with Western institutions, both Dodik and Moscow aim to stymie efforts to strengthen the Bosnian state and make it more functional. As Majda Ruge, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, noted in a recent policy brief, “Russia has always acted as a spoiler in Bosnia at a low cost.”

Over the past several years, Russian officials have opposed decisions of the Office of the High Representative, failed to accept the genocide verdicts handed down by international war crimes tribunals, and increasingly spoken out against the country’s NATO aspirations.

Russia has supported both Dodik and, more recently, the hard-line Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Covic. The two leaders have a rock-solid alliance and a track record of blocking Bosnia’s functioning. By keeping Bosnia dysfunctional, these spoilers seek to prevent the country from fulfilling the criteria for NATO membership.

Russia’s convergence of interests with the two separatist leaders in Bosnia ensures that NATO’s expansion to encompass the Balkans will be put on hold. For Russia, this is a low-cost undertaking, keeping NATO out of this area where the West has invested heavily since the Dayton Accords. In other words, what was once a firmly pro-Western region is now being increasingly contested. Without a firm anchor in the Atlantic alliance, the Balkans remains the powder keg of Europe.


Bosnia headed to the polls on Oct. 2 to elect the country’s three-member presidency, representatives and assembly members at the Federation and canton levels, and president and assembly members in Republika Srpska. Dodik opted to run for president of Republika Srpska and will no longer be a member of the country’s tripartite presidency.

While a seat in Bosnia’s presidency—officially the top job in the country—is prestigious, most of the real power lies at the entity level in Republika Srpska and at the entity and canton levels in the Federation. Dodik was one of three members of the rotating presidency and, in a number of cases, found himself unable to dominate decision-making in the way he was used to. By contrast, being president of Republika Srpska gives him sole authority on a broad range of issues without a collective decision-making mechanism. Since there are no cantons in Republika Srpska akin to those in the Federation, Dodik’s ability to project his power is immeasurably greater. Therefore, he opted to run for his previous job in Banja Luka.

His protégé, Zeljka Cvijanovic, was elected as the Serb member of Bosnia’s presidency.

Dodik won the most votes in his race, according to Bosnia’s central election authorities, but his victory is now marred by allegations of voter fraud. However, Bosnia’s election commission results show that he is leading in the race to return to his old job. If these results are confirmed, this would mean that a key pro-Russian actor in Bosnia and the Balkans will keep his grip on Republika Srpska and retain the ability to exercise influence through his protégé in Sarajevo.

As his access to Western capitals closes under U.S. and U.K. sanctions, Dodik’s turn to Russia will become more pronounced. There is little doubt that he will continue playing the destabilizing role that marked his return to power in 2006.

With his protégé in Sarajevo, Dodik will have a say in the country’s presidency without holding the job. Like Dodik, Cvijanovic is under U.K. sanctions; however, she is not under U.S. sanctions. This means that Cvijanovic is currently less of a liability in contacts with Western officials.

Dodik’s influence over Bosnia’s institutions and foreign policy will also depend on whether his party joins a coalition at the state level. He has already indicated that Republika Srpska wants the post of Bosnia’s foreign minister. If his party gets the post, it would mean four years of hemorrhaging of both Bosnia’s institutions and international reputation. It would also mean that Russia would have an even more empowered ally in this corner of Europe.

Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Sciences. Twitter: @KarcicHamza

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