Bosnia: Senior Member of Governing Bosnian Serb Party Sanctioned by US as Election Approaches

On 10 September Nikola Spiric, Vice-President of the Party of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and MP in the Bosnian Parliament, was banned by the State Department, along with several members of his family, from entering the United States. The SNSD is the governing party in the Republika Srpska (RS) and is headed by Milorad Dodik, the current RS President and candidate in the elections taking place on 7 October for the Serbian position in the three member Bosnian presidency. Dodik had himself been sanctioned by the US in January in 2017.

The State Department said that action had been taken against Spiric because it had credible evidence that he had ‘engaged in and benefitted from public corruption including the acceptance of improper benefits in exchange for the performance of public functions and interference in public processes.’ Nikola Spiric responded to this move by stating that he had been targeted on account on ‘the clear political and national position’ he had taken in politics. He added that it was no coincidence that this measure had been taken twenty five days before polling in the Bosnian general elections. He blamed Maureen Cormack, the US ambassador in Sarajevo, and Bosnian politicians holding office at state level for initiating the action. Milorad Dodik commented that the sanctions order had probably been signed by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, without him having known Nikola Spiric’s identity. Igor Crnadak, the Bosnian Foreign Minister and election candidate for the opposition Party of Democratic Progress (PDP), confirmed on 11 September that he had no prior knowledge of the action taken by the State Department.

The action taken against Nikola Spiric prompted Zeljko Komsic, the leader of the centre-left Democratic Front, to call for Milorad Dodik, who is similarly sanctioned, to withdraw from the election for the BiH presidency. He stated that Dodik could not represent Bosnia as he was now ’outside of the system of international politics.’ Aleksandra Pandurevic, an MP for the opposition Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) who has a record of campaigning on anti-corruption issues, stated in an interview with Sarajevo Radio that she was ‘sincerely sorry because of the impact that this will have on the reputation of the Republika Srpska.’ She suggested that the sanctioning of such a senior political figure for corruption would potentially damage the capacity of the RS to secure foreign investment and lead to a fall in its credit rating.

This action against Spiric came at a time when Milorad Dodik and the SNSD had been seeking to develop links with individuals close to Donald Trump’s election campaign, and in this way, apparently, seek to circumvent the US Embassy in Sarajevo and the State Department. In the summer of 2018 the SNSD signed a contract with the lobbyists Jason Osborne and Mike Rubino, both of whom had worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, to represent them in the United States. When Zeljka Cvijanovic, the Republika Srpska Prime Minister and candidate for the Republika Srpska Presidency in the forthcoming elections, visited the US in July they arranged meetings for her with congressmen, Roger Wicker (Republican Mississippi) and Dana Rohrabacher (Republican California), who is known for his strongly pro-Russian views. Cvijanovic also met with Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former strategist, during the visit. This visit was followed by reports in the Bosnian press that Dodik would shortly be removed from the US sanctions ‘black list.’ These reports were denied by the US embassy. Milorad Dodik, however, appeared to remain convinced that he had developed positive relations with the Trump White House. On 2 September Milorad Dodik gave a wide-ranging interview in which he speculated on future international developments. Angela Merkel, he said, was now weakened and was pre-occupied with problems with the Visegrad countries within the EU. The British Dodik stated had ‘created chaos in the Middle East and are now creating chaos here.’ He concluded the interview by stating that he expected the Republika Srpska to achieve independence from Bosnia in Donald Trump’s ‘second term in office.’ On 10 September, the same day that Spiric was sanctioned, Tucker Davis, who had headed Donald Trump’s field campaign, in West Virginia in 2016 appeared on the platform alongside Dodik at an SNSD election rally in the northern Bosnian town of Derventa.

The sanctioning of Nikola Spiric would, however, appear to demonstrate the limitations of Milorad Dodik’s attempts at parallel diplomacy. Aleksandra Pandurevic in her radio interview commented on this stating that ‘The SNSD lobbies in America, but the black-list gets wider.’

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