Orbán likely to ruffle feathers if he really accepts the medal previously awarded to Putin

April 05. 2024. – 08:11 AM


Orbán likely to ruffle feathers if he really accepts the medal previously awarded to Putin
In the photo released by the Press Office of the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán and Milorad Dodik, President of Republika Srpska are pictured near Banja Luka, on 23 June 2023 – Benko Vivien Cher / Press Office of the Prime Minister / MTI


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Bosnia and Herzegovina is a true powder keg. In this hotbed of ethnic conflict, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been focused on making friends with the Bosnian Serbs. This time, he is about to receive a medal from Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik, who is currently on trial in Sarajevo and who has previously awarded the same medal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Bosniaks and the Croats in the country are not keen on all this, although on this trip, the Hungarian Prime Minister at least held talks with other Bosnian leaders of different nationalities in Sarajevo on 4 April. On 5 April, along with several of his ministers and many Hungarian business leaders, he is set to attend an economic forum in Banja Luka.

A year ago it was Russian President Vladimir Putin, and this year it was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who received a medal from Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik on the occasion of the national holiday of the Bosnian Serbs. The awarding of the medal to Orbán was originally announced during the National Day celebrations in Banja Luka (the capital of the Serb entity) on 9 January when Dodik also stated that Orbán would be accepting the medal in person at a later date, and this will indeed happen on 5 April.

As Telex reported at the time, this gesture could well stir up the already uneasy sentiments of the ethnic groups living there, and if anything, the air around the Republika Srpska (RS) and the entity's leader Milorad Dodik has become even more tense since then.

Viktor Orbán has traditionally been on very good terms with Milorad Dodik, but this time he compensated for his one-sided Bosnian friend-making habits by first holding talks in Sarajevo, the seat of the Federation, on 4 April.

The Bosnian press reported that Elmedin Konaković, Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina received him at Sarajevo airport and the Hungarian delegation also met with Borjana Krišto, the Croat President of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Orbán then headed to Banja Luka to meet Milorad Dodik and receive the Order of Merit of the Republika Srpska.

The medal and 9 January

As previously mentioned, the announcement about Orbán being decorated with the medal was made on 9 January this year, when Bosnian Serbs commemorated 9 January 1992. This holiday is officially banned in Bosnia and Herzegovina and has already been condemned by the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina in two separate rulings. The Serbs, however, have ignored the ban. In fact, this year Serbs from Serbia and Bosnia coordinated their celebrations which included big parades and simultaneous fireworks in both Banja Luka and Belgrade.

The reason for the commemoration being divisive is that, when some of the peoples of what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina decided to become independent at the time of the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian Serbs would have preferred to remain with the Serbs. On 9 January 1992, the predecessor of the Republika Srpska, the Republic of Serbian People of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was proclaimed.

For them, this remains 'Independence Day' or ‘The Day of Republika Srpska’ to this day. The Serb population sees it as the day of Serb loyalty, and chooses to celebrate this day rather than the 1 March when the majority of the present state voted for independence.

This created a bizarre situation: Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot celebrate the day when the Serbs voted "against" the existence of the state, but the Serbs refuse to celebrate the referendum in which they were defeated – in fact, they did not even participate in it, but chose to boycott it.

Recent developments

Viktor Orbán received a medal in January, which he will accept in April, but between the two dates, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has, if possible, deteriorated even further.

Although Bosnia and Herzegovina is a candidate country for EU membership, not much has actually happened on this front so far other than the launch of actual negotiations coming within reach in March. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has announced that they will propose opening EU accession negotiations with Bosnia, as they believe the country has made more progress as a candidate country in less than a year than it did in the preceding decade.

However, of the three constituent nations (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats), only the Bosniaks and Croats are enthusiastic about this, while the Serbs 'loathe' Western organisations and perceive them as enemies, especially NATO, but also the EU. Additionally, the Serb leader Milorad Dodik has been put on trial, which is welcomed by the Croats and Bosniaks, who see Dodik as the gravedigger of their unified country, while the Serbs are naturally outraged by the legal proceedings.

The basis of the lawsuit is that under BiH law, an official who fails to comply with, implement or obstruct the decisions of the High Representative of the international community can be sentenced to between six months and five years in prison. However, Dodik rejects the right of UN High Representative Christian Schmidt, the international guardian of peace, to exercise a veto over decisions made by the national parliament. The hearing has been postponed four times so far, but the trial has recently finally started.

Conflicts without end

It should be noted here that Bosnia and Herzegovina isn't in too good a shape anyway. The country still carries the memories of the terrible war in the early nineties, landmines have not been cleared everywhere, human remains are often found buried under playgrounds and football pitches, and the Serb, Croat and Bosniak people simultaneously and mutually hate each other and often even the country itself, as depopulation continues at an appalling rate.

The case of Selma Bajrami, the incredibly popular Bosnian singer is a good illustration of the tensions. Despite the fact that millions in the region have followed the Bosnian-Albanian singer's videos and performances, the singer was accused by the Serbs of making Albanian nationalist gestures, and has since been refused entry to Serbia. She was put on the first flight to Sarajevo which resulted in an arrogant back and forth messaging.

As for emigration, back in the days when Josip Broz Tito allowed the free movement of Yugoslav labourers, many became 'Gastarbeiters' or guest workers, with Bosniaks going mainly to Switzerland, Sweden and Germany. Even today, almost everyone has relatives abroad, and there are cities such as Malmö in Sweden (where Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the famous Swedish footballer of Bosnian descent was born), with a significant Bosnian community. In total, there are about 90,000 Bosniaks living in Sweden alone, so if anybody is looking to leave today, they will probably find a relative somewhere in the West. This, however, means that in a state that once had a population of over 4 million, there are now hardly 3 million people.

It's even easier for the Croats to leave, as they can easily get Croatian, i.e. EU citizenship, so their numbers have dwindled the most in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Serbs are less likely to emigrate, but they and their leader Dodik strongly detest the whole unified state.

Dodik isn’t trying to hide his views

A president who is working to break up his own country is relatively rare. Milorad Dodik is such a person, and he has indeed filled the role of President of Bosnia and Herzegovina before as part of the aforementioned interethnic rotation, but instead of working on unity he worked to achieve disintegration. Incidentally, his one notable historical predecessor from the region who worked on disintegration was Croatian politician Stjepan (Stipe) Mesić, but he was the last Yugoslavian president when he did so as the country’s leader. Milorad Dodik makes no secret of his views either:

  • At football matches, Dodik cheers for Serbia, not Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • He hates going to Sarajevo, and just a few days ago he has declared that their capital is "not something called Sarajevo", but only Belgrade.
  • Instead of describing himself as a Bosnian Serb, he consistently says he is a Serb.
  • He considers the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement a doctrine imposed on Serbs.
  • He goes back and forth between admitting to and denying that what occurred in Srebrenica in 1995 was genocide.
  • Sometimes he denounces war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, and then he names a student dormitory after Radovan Karadzic
  • And, as his trial proves, he refuses to accept the authority of the appointed High Commissioner, Christian Schmidt.

The court case

In any case, he has now been summoned to court for this very reason, but he is making a big circus there, too, and the procedure keeps dragging on. The case is likely to end with a negative verdict in Sarajevo, which Bosnia and Herzegovina most likely will not be able to enforce, and tensions will only increase.

Dodik has objected to the nationality of the prosecutor, the judge, he has requested an indictment written in the Cyrillic alphabet, has refused to accept texts written in the Latin alphabet, complained of back pain when he was supposed to stand up, and has had so many supporters in the courtroom that at one point the room had to be cleared before the proceedings could continue.

Milorad Dodik surrounded by supporters outside the court in Sarajevo on 17 January – Photo: Samir Jordamovic / Anadolu / AFP
Milorad Dodik surrounded by supporters outside the court in Sarajevo on 17 January – Photo: Samir Jordamovic / Anadolu / AFP

On the one hand, all this is understandable in his position, but Dodik is really not an easy character. This is true in the literal sense as well, because the politician who projects the image of 'the simple child of the people' is indeed a massive man who loves to play basketball and sing. He isn't a lightweight in the figurative sense either. For example, he has been known to send away journalists who were interviewing him in a boorish manner when they started asking uncomfortable questions.

He has a habit of always contrasting everything: when the number of Bosniaks who died in the war is mentioned, he always brings up the Serbian victims. He also makes no secret of his desire to see the Serb part of the country become independent, and in December he went as far as to announce that if Donald Trump wins the elections in the US, he would not hesitate to declare the independence of Republika Srpska. He does not accept the acronym RS, which is often used across the country, but only uses the entity’s full name, Republika Srpska when speaking.

A close friend of Hungary

He really likes Viktor Orbán though, just like Viktor Orbán likes him. The international community has struggled to understand why Hungary is so unilaterally and openly supporting the Serbs, but everyone in Bosnia and Herzegovina knows the reason. On this trip Viktor Orbán also went to Sarajevo, but he goes to Banja Luka more often. In 2022, when Orbán was supposed to visit Sarajevo, the Bosniaks protested against 'the great friend of the Bosnian Serbs', and the trip was in the end cancelled.

There are several similarities between Orbán and Dodik. The two politicians' rhetoric (about opponents of their country, the opposition financed from abroad, the independent journalists and the NGOs) includes very similar features. Just as the Hungarian prime minister's home village of Felcsút has been given a stadium and a first-class football club, Dodik's small home village of Laktaši has become somewhat of a resort, where he likes to receive his guests.

And, just as Viktor Orbán's friend Lőrinc Mészáros or his son-in-law István Tiborcz became rich very quickly, so have Dodik's friends and relatives seen their business careers soar. BRN's article writes about how Dodik's son (Igor), daughter (Gorica) and son-in-law (Pavle Đorić) own an extensive network of fruit farms, food and pharmaceutical retailers, media companies, as well as a number of restaurants and real estate.

Moreover, similarly to Orbán, Dodik also has a deficiency in power: the mayor of their biggest city, the seat of their power is an opposition figure. But, while it is hard to imagine Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony bulldozing a NER company or restaurant, the young mayor of Banja Luka, Draško Stanivuković, just 30, has proven a tough opponent. In one memorable case, he announced that he would demolish the illegally built cafes of Dodik's circles, the bars called Kajak and Agape, and as the video shows, he did just that.

The Hungarian thread

Another unpleasant thing about Milorad Dodik in the eyes of the West is that he is very pro-Russian, so it is no coincidence that he and Vladimir Putin have mutually decorated each other with awards. The New York Times recently published a detailed article on this, indicating that the troubled waters of Bosnia are hampering Western efforts to wean themselves off Russian energy supplies.

Viktor Orbán has been making a lot of gestures towards Dodik, which makes honouring him more understandable. After all, Hungary provided a very favourable ten-year loan of 110 million euros (42 billion forints) to the RS, and earlier it helped with a financial package of 35 million euros.

Why is Viktor Orbán doing all this? Perhaps

  • it is a gesture to the Russians and a snub at the EU, or perhaps,
  • as an enthusiastic supporter of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, Viktor Orbán is building relations with countries that could later become his allies in the EU. Last June in Sarajevo, Orbán said that "Hungary supports the rapid accession of the Balkans and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the European Union", saying that "the European Union needs the Balkans more now than the other way round";
  • his goal could also be laying down the (partly economic) tentacles of Hungary there in time.

If it is the latter, there is not much to show for it yet.

The question is whether what we gain in the realm of business by the Bosnian Serbs seeing the Hungarians in a positive light amounts to more than what we lose by the Croats not seeing us as positively.

Orbán also met with Dodik at the Antalya Diplomatic Forum in Turkey in early March. Speaking there about Orbán's expected visit, Dodik said that the objective is to extend Hungary's assistance to Republika Srpska to other areas of the economy besides agriculture in the future. Dodik then announced Orbán's visit and that he would be awarded the RS's highest decoration during a debate in the Republika Srpska Parliament on 28 March.

The RS press provided details of the relationship and the programme beforehand. According to them, Dodik and Orbán's friendship will help to further the development of agriculture and energetics in the Republika Srpska, with several more joint projects also in the pipeline. The press release recalled that during a recent meeting in Budapest between the head of the RS government Radovan Višković and Hungarian Minister of Economy Márton Nagy, it was decided to hold an economic forum in Banja Luka, where 23 Hungarian companies will be represented.

In addition to Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian delegation to Banja Luka reportedly includes Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Economy Márton Nagy, Gábor Jenei, head of the HEPA (Hungarian Export Promotion Agency), and representatives of 23 Hungarian companies from the energy, agriculture, finance and food sectors, among others. It remains to be seen whether this will result in some kind of cooperation that will benefit Hungary and Hungarian companies, or whether it will simply remain a friendship between politicians.

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