Banja Luka (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (AFP) – The photographs showed more than a dozen tough-looking men posing in military fatigues, staring sternly at a camera, reportedly part of a pro-Russian paramilitary unit.
Taken on the streets of Banja Luka, the capital of the Serb half of Bosnia, the pictures emerged in January, prompting Bosnian intelligence authorities to begin an investigation amid claims of Russian efforts to destabilise the Balkans.
Three months on, the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik sits back in his ornate office chair and calmly dismisses the claims about pro-Russian forces as “lies”.
“In Republika Srpska, there are no paramilitary units,” Dodik, the president of the Serb-run entity in Bosnia, tells AFP.
“If there was one, I would not be in this seat anymore.”
The region called Republika Srpska, together with the separate Muslim-Croat Federation, make up the multi-ethnic country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, part of the former Yugoslavia.
Each has its own president, government, parliament and police force.
Dodik, who first came to power in 1998, was initially close to Western countries which viewed him as a moderate.
But numerous disagreements, including a campaign to celebrate a Serbian-focused holiday last year — viewed as a means to undermine the country’s central authority in Sarajevo — has seen relations sour.
The United States imposed sanctions on Dodik in January 2017 for undermining the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, the deal which ended Bosnia’s war.
Dodik has since made overtures towards Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whom he hopes to meet in the run-up to this year’s Bosnian elections.
“My political legitimacy is not in the West, it is by the people who vote,” he said.
Asked if Western powers would prefer a different political leader for Bosnian Serbs, he says: “(They want) to have servile people here.”
Serbs make up almost a third of Bosnia’s 3.5 million inhabitants.
– Nationalists and arms –
Claims about Russian interference in the Balkans have swirled in the last few months, at a time when Russia’s relations with the West have hit a new low.
In March, the American think-tank Foreign Policy Research Institute published a report “Bosnia on the Russian Chopping Block: The Potential for Violence and Steps to Prevent It”.
Dodik is presented in the much-discussed study as a leader being manipulated by Moscow in an attempt to maintain divisions in the Balkan country.
Two of its three authors, Reuf Bajrovic and Emir Suljagic, are politicians in Sarajevo and fierce critics of Dodik.
According to them, “Russia is actively supporting indigenous political and paramilitary actors seeking to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina” including by “violent means if necessary”.
They point to the purchase of arms for police in Republika Srpska and the presence of a possible paramilitary nationalist group called “Srbska Cast” (the Serb Honour) in Banja Luka on January 9.
This allegation is a “pure lie”, according to Dodik. A probe launched in January has provided no evidence to support the allegations.
As for the purchase of 2,500 new rifles, that was done with approval from Sarajevo and came from a “legitimate right to equip and arm the police, in accordance with (European) standards”.
“We are exposed to terrorist threats,” he added.
– Western responsibilities –
Reinventing himself as an unapologetic nationalist, Dodik now makes a point of associating with pro-Putin figures.
In January he decorated Alexandre Zaldostanov, nicknamed Khirourg (the Surgeon), the leader of notorious Russian nationalist motorcycle club known as the Night Wolves.
The group has faced US sanctions for alleged involvement in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
“Why would I bend to the demonisation of Zaldostanov?” Dodik asks. “Especially as I myself have been subject to the same demonisation.”
“I know that some in the West spread this idea that Russians are bad guys,” Dodik said.
But my “meetings with (Putin) were always proper”. There has never been “a question of the implosion of Bosnia”.
While praising Putin, Dodik also hints at possible anger towards the West.
“He (Putin) respected our interests beyond our expectations, and more than others do.”
“First responsible (for) a dramatic failure” in Bosnia are Westerners, whose representatives here were “exceeding their rights and the law”.
Dodik, however, remains “convinced” that there will not be another conflict in the region, unless it is “fomented from the outside”.
After serving as president since 2010, Dodik is not permitted to run for another mandate in Republika Srpska.
But in October he will attempt to become the Serb representative in the country’s tripartite presidency, along with a Muslim and a Croat.
His candidacy was greeted with surprise as Dodik has been a constant critic of the country’s central institutions.
“(I have) no intention of destroying the constitutional order” he insisted.