Milorad Dodik during a campaign event | Source: Store Norkse Leksikon
It has been an eventful week in Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina. On 23 March, the National Assembly passed a controversial law criminalising defamation, while proposing a draft law increasing surveillance on foreign-funded NGOs. A diplomatic row with both the US and the UK, moreover, has caused worry over the direction President Dodik is heading towards.
While enduring strong criticism on the law criminalising defamation, parliament in Republika Srpska has gone through with its adoption. On Thursday 23 March, the bill was passed after a 48-21 vote. The bill moves defamation from civil law to criminal law, meaning suspected violators can be tried by a government.
Fines under the new law can range from 5.000 to a staggering 20.000 Bosnian marks, the equivalent of 2.500 to 10.000 euros. That amount, however, can rise up to the equivalent of 25.000 euros if the act is committed via “print, radio broadcast, television, at a public gathering or in any other way.” In Bosnia-Herzegovina – one of the poorest European countries – such amounts are considered particularly huge.
Civil rights groups, media and international organisations have overwhelmingly advised against the law, fearing it will limit freedom of speech and independent journalism. In a statement, Transparency International warned that “defamation is frequently used as a justification to curtail dissent.” The bill, furthermore, “allows for arbitrary interpretation of what constitutes an insult” and “seems designed to encourage censorship and block criticism of powerful figures”.
In a reaction, Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik denied the critics: “It is directed against those who misuse the public space and modern information space through anonymous and other means, and we will try to establish accountability for this.”
On the same day, Dodik’s government released another statement announcing the treatment of a controversial foreign agent law. This proposed bill would force foreign-funded NGOs to apply to a registry and report on their activities. The draft law is particularly controversial for its similarity to a Russian bill introduced in 2012, which is considered as the start of the countries’ crackdown on civil liberties.
Sanctions mark beginning of diplomatic row
On 24 March, Republika Srpska made the headlines again following its break of diplomatic ties with both the United States and the United Kingdom. The government disclosed that it accuses both countries of “interfering with the internal Bosnian affairs.”
The decision is almost certainly a reaction to the British-American sanctions imposed on Osman Mehmedagic – the former head of the Bosnian intelligence and security agency – and Dragan Stankovic – a longtime political ally to Dodik. Mehmedagic allegedly used state-owned telecommunication companies to spy on rival politicians, whereas Stankovic was the main architect behind a law in violation of the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995). According to US Treasury department official Brian Nelson: “[Mehmedagic] constitutes a threat to regional stability, institutional trust, and the aspirations of those seeking democratic governance in the Western Balkans.”
In a reaction, the US embassy branded Dodik’s latest decision a “step down the dangerous path that he has chosen – a path of isolation and authoritarian rule.” The British embassy vouched to “continue to work for the benefit of all citizens of this country.”
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s inefficient governing system
The Dayton Peace Agreement – signed in 1995 to end the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, determined the Bosnian constitution. As a result, the political system is complex and inefficient. The country is composed of two political entities, Republika Srpska (49 percent of the territory) and the Bosniak-Croat Federation (51 percent of the territory). The Federation is divided into ten cantonal units.
Map indicating Bosnia-Herzegovina’s territorial division | Source: Strore Norske Leksikon
A 2013 census revealed that with approximately 50%, the Bosniaks make up the largest ethnic group. Serbs make up about 31% of the country’s population, with the Croats around 15%. The country’s institutions – which are there to support the stability of the country – are constructed taking into consideration these ethnic divides. As such, Bosnia-Herzegovina is a highly decentralised state with a mixture of a parliamentary and presidential political system.
While Bosnia-Herzegovina obtained EU candidate status in December 2022, the country is lagging behind in the EU integration process compared to its neighbours. Attempts at implementing reforms that would move the country further towards EU accession have failed. The political elite, furthermore, has an interest in containing the status quo.
Author: David Groenen