Milorad Dodik has his faults. The effective and aggressive defense of the Serb Republic’s right to exist outside the domination of the fundamentalist Sarajevo is, however, not one of them. As the president of the Serb Republic he firmly stands by the historical legacies of the state, going back to her conception, not merely by the policies he himself authored and enforced during his mandates, and by the unalienable right of the Serb people in Bosnia-Herzegovina to determine its political status independently. And so he should.
He made a mistake today though. A minor one, but a mistake nevertheless, at least in the PR sense. He was completely out of line in going to Belgrade to debate issues of importance to the legacy of the Serb Republic with an irrelevant Belgrade politician who insulted him and the Bosnian Serbs. Čedomir Jovanović was at an advantage before the debate even began because he was able to draw Dodik out to a duel of unequal prerogatives. For Jovanovic, who irresponsibly, but not surprisingly, called the Serb Republic “a genocidal creation” earlier in the week, it was a match all but won in advance not because he’d go on to win his arguments – I heard no meaningful argument or a statement of facts from him for the entire duration of the debate – but because he, a leader of a party that hardly has enough popular support to go above the parliamentary threshold, the fact that renders his LDP irrelevant, matched up with an elected president of the Serb Republic, who fell for his bait. Milorad Dodik had no business going to Belgrade to prove anything to anyone short of maybe the Serbian Patriarch, let alone humiliate himself and his official capacity by even responding to Jovanović’s provocations.
I’m not going to go into Jovanović’s motivation for making statements that confirmed his status of a political rogue he is viewed to be by the overwhelming majority of Serbia’s electorate. The foreign mercenary accusations frequently leveled at him received more credence than ever with this attack on the Bosnian Serbs. Perhaps it was an electoral tactic. Perhaps it was just a jab in a broader PR offensive against the Serb Republic. In any case, it was a major amplification on the radar of Jovanović’s generally consistent anti-Serb tone veiled in self-accusatory, ever-apologetic “Serbianism” of the sort almost no one in Serbdom really appreciates and rallies to. This attack on the Serb Republic, combined with Jovanović’s inability and unwillingness to adequately back it up in today’s debate with Dodik, was too harsh and, I’d say, inexplicably out-of-place even coming from such a nefarious source. But the very nefarious character of the source made me get the eerie feeling that the attack on the Bosnian Serbs by Jovanović couldn’t have been a random rant.
I watched the debate. Yes, it was a debate, although Dodik started by saying he didn’t come to debate. Then why did you come, Mr. President? Did you not know that Jovanović’s provocative rhetoric, backed by nothing but an attitude, would not leave you unfazed? I was startled from the get-go by moderator’s insistence on undermining Dodik’s position by unnecessarily, thus calculatingly, trying to explain and justify the context behind Jovanović’s slanderous rant against the Bosnian Serbs and their historical experience. She went on and on defending the slanderer, reiterating that Jovanović's words were taken out of context, when it was clear that his statement was standing free of a context and its essence wasn't affected by the intended broader message. He said, unequivocally, that the Serb Republic was built on a genocide, not conditioning this core qualification on the rest of the message, not countering it and not leaving any room for misinterpretation. And while it is necessary to put statements of this kind into a broader context, the context of Jovanović’s address to his party’s main committee didn’t change the meaning of the controversial core. It was controversial, I’d add, only because it stirred the Serbian public in a protest, not because there is a doubt about the fallacy and malevolence of such words. To his credit, even Jovanović didn’t try to play the context card. This being said, from the very beginning, the tone of the Tanjug-sponsored event was anti-Dodik. The comparably higher audio levels on Jovanović’s microphone didn’t help Dodik’s position either.
Dodik, visibly incensed throughout, made a further mistake of trying to argue points with Jovanović, who apparently wasn’t making any, outside of Amanpourian clichés and the range of anti-Serb advocacy paroles that would make Mustafa Cerić envy him. Dodik fell into the trap of having to stoop to the level of a loudmouth and to oppose judgmental disqualifications without substance using facts and established notions that Jovanović rejected as irrelevant or perfidiously span as counterintuitive. A clear rhetorical difference between the two emerged: Jovanović’s proneness to ridiculing his opponent’s reliance on the selfish national interest as a political motivator appeared to have dominated over Dodik’s insistence, somewhat clumsy in comparison, on the self-evidence of that interest, natural to all pragmatic politicians. Dodik defeated Jovanović’s insinuations time and again, reaching for facts and logical arguments, but he also lost patience with Jovanović’s bullying with superficial attitudes and shallow arguments in the face of facts that spoke so convincingly. Despite the starting positions stated at the top of this article, there is no doubt as to who won this debate: no one. The debate itself was unfair from the outset, not because of Jovanović’s superiority in any area, but because Dodik was an elected leader whose legacy, well in the public eye and a subject to accountability, was susceptible to questioning and criticism, and who had a history of governing that could be scrutinized. Jovanović, on the other hand, had no such burden and he could swing at Dodik and the Bosnian Serbs freely and without concerns such as accountability. That is why Dodik's coming to Belgrade baffled me. There is no doubt that facts on this matter are on the side of the Bosnian Serbs and that Dodik presented them in a way that would convince a rational and well-intentioned person, but he should have sent Staša Kotarac to wrestle with the absurdity of Jovanović’s dog bites, if he wanted to respond in such a direct way at all. Milorad Dodik and the Serb Republic had nothing to prove to Jovanović and his kind of Serbs and not only that, but the president of the Serb Republic couldn’t allow himself to discuss state politics with a leader of a minor and extremist political party in Serbia.
The right response to the attack was, actually, to invite Jovanović to Banja Luka to debate with Kotarac, Drago Kalabić or more appropriately, Milanko Mihajlica. If he refused and came up with some bogus denial of responsibility, he’d be seen as a coward who didn’t stand behind his words. Dodik, on the contrary, showed he could put his money where his mouth was, but it was still unwise to agree to such a charade. Unless Dodik wanted to sharpen his teeth, which I can’t say he did successfully, this debate was totally unnecessary. Those Serbs that follow Jovanović will not have their minds changed by Dodik, who they see as not much different from Radovan Karadžić anyway. The majority of Serbs don’t pay any serious mind to Jovanović's verbal diarrhea and no rational Serb would start believing all of a sudden that the Serb Republic was what Jovanović said she was just because he said it. I also doubt that this was some kind of a setup for Dodik to publicly denounce the attackers on the Serb Republic and repeat his attitude towards the Srebrenica events, since he looked way more uncomfortable than his counterpart.
I am baffled and it’ll probably take several days and additional information that is sure to come out for me to get a better grasp on why Dodik would stoop to the level of Čedomir Jovanović. The Serb Republic is a reality and while the defense of her existence and her historical legacy in the face of continued assaults is of utmost importance and a task of every rational Serb out there, I do not think her president did himself a favor by lending political relevance to one Čedomir Jovanović. This debate was, after all, the second greatest political success of Jovanović’s career, just for the fact that he got to participate in it.