Aleksandar Vucic and Milorad Dodik take a walk in the park. Photo via Serbian presidency website.

The closer-than-close ties between Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs have only deepened under Aleksandar Vucic. But a change may be in the offing.

The relationship between Serbia and Republika Srpska is a recurrent but never an essential topic in Serbian society and the media because it is never questioned. There are no doubts or open issues, since the people are the same – religion, holidays, and history too. The border can be crossed without a passport, just like in Yugoslavia. Even the names are near twins: Republic of Serbia, Serb Republic.

Hands Across the Drina

If you took a poll of the Serbian public on how they feel about their Serbian-speaking cousins across the border in Republika Srpska, no doubt most would say they think of them as close family. The government, of course, is aware that “Srpska” – the informal short form – is a part of neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. From time to time, government officials publicly state that Serbia respects the territorial integrity of Bosnia. Still, in essence, Serbia sees Srpska as a younger brother and acts accordingly, while the Bosnian Serbs look to Serbia as an ally and wealthier defender. Sometimes it seems Serbs on the Bosnian side of the Drina River love Serbia more than anyone and look on it as a promised land. According to statistical data, the average salary in Serbia is about 600 euros a month, just a bit higher than in Republika Srpska, so you could say this relationship is ultimately about bad and worse.

Since 2008, when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia with the assistance of Western powers and recognition from nearly all its neighbors, the word spread in Serbia that Srpska could be a counterweight. In private, people muttered that if Kosovo had the right to secede, then Republika Srpska can do it too, and if Serbia had its borders changed, so can Bosnia. It is true that from time to time, someone in the Balkans floats the idea of redrawing borders based on ethnic divisions, but it is not “European” to say that out loud. It can only be implied. For example, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, asked not long ago how he would vote in a referendum on unification with Albania, said he would vote “yes” if the referendum were held peacefully and democratically. There were no reactions from the international community, but Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic reacted in his favorite way – by asking “what if.”

“Now, just imagine – and this reflects Serbia’s position irrespective of who is in power […] – imagine that one of us had said – no one has and no one will! – that Republika Srpska and Serbia should unite. My question is: do you know how quickly they would react?” The “they” in Vucic’s question is, of course, the West. His answer: “They would react immediately […] and explain to us that we are people of the past, the burden of the Balkans, that we generate crises.”

Vucic’s remarks were only hypothetical. In fact, he has never said that he supports either independence for Republika Srpska or its unification with Serbia, but he is playing the “good cop” role written long ago. Vucic repeats that he respects the territorial integrity of Bosnia, that there is no impetus for unification, and that Serbia would not incite a crisis.

“Serbia is among the signatories and a guarantor of the Dayton Agreement, and this 26-year policy will remain unchanged,” he said just a few weeks ago, referring to the U.S.-brokered peace deal that imposed a convoluted constitutional setup on Bosnia and legalized Republika Srpska.

Other Serbian officials are not so coy. Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin, for instance, is a loose cannon who likes to make provocative remarks – supposedly without the consent of the government he has belonged to for quite some time.

I do not understand why the Serbs could not unite. I am not sure why Serbs forming a single state will not solve the Serbian national question. Obviously, in the Balkans, national questions are solved by the nation being united in a unique political structure,” he said last spring. Inevitably, he bookends such declarations saying his views are his own, not those of Vucic or the government.

“The Drina is a border only as much as we want it to be,” Vulin proclaimed in November on the occasion of the opening of a new border crossing between Serbia and Republika Srpska. “It divides us as much as we allow it to divide us, separates us as much as we allow it. It must unite us, because we are the same, living on both sides; we rejoice in the same things and we believe in peace.”

Vulin is also the architect of the “Serbian World,” a concept that envisages the unification of all Serbs under Vucic’s leadership. He is the chief promoter of the view that Vucic is “the president of all Serbs” wherever they live but particularly in Bosnia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. 

The Serbian World is as yet a fringe idea, but on the ground Serbia continues to build closer ties with the Bosnian Serbs. When the COVID crisis started, procurement was managed entirely by Vucic – who treated Republika Srpska as part of Serbia – and most Serbs never questioned it. Medical equipment, respirators, vaccines – everything was shared with the Serbs of Srpska. In 2020, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Bosnian presidency, said that since Vucic came to power, Republika Srpska had received more assistance from Serbia than in 20 years from the Bosnian central government

Last April, Vucic pledged that Serbia would invest hundreds of millions of euros into infrastructure in Republika Srpska, most visibly a bridge over the Sava River linked by motorway to the city of Bijeljina. Serbia invests in schools, hospitals, and even an airport in the entity.

The most frequent topic, however, is the planned joint memorial complex dedicated to the victims of Jasenovac. This memorial, Vucic said, “would be a mandatory school trip for every child in Serbia, so they would know how our nation suffered in Jasenovac,” a complex of five camps built by the Croatian fascist regime where as many as 100,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma, and political opponents died during World War II. The memorial should not be seen as an expression of hate for those who built the camps, he said, careful not to mention who those builders were.

For most Serbs in Serbia, Dodik – for years the most powerful Serbian politician in Bosnia, a close friend to all Serbian governments, and a faithful follower of Vucic – is the face of the Bosnian Serbs. Dodik does not hide that in addition to a Bosnian passport he has a Serbian one, and a vast mansion in an elite part of Belgrade. Dodik is practically the only guest from Republika Srpska seen on Serbian television, preaching his version of the truth. If anyone in Serbia wants to hear any other point of view from the other side of the Drina, they must try hard.

Although the question of uniting Serbia and Republika Srpska is hardly raised at the official level, reading between the lines it seems that their current governments would favor unification if they felt they would not pay too dearly for it.

One joint decision that could point in that direction came in 2020 when both sides declared a Day of Serbian Unity, Freedom, and the National Flag. Particularly interesting and indicative of the regime in Serbia, the day was observed on 15 September in 2020 and again last year because Vucic made it so; the law says nothing of it.

Is the Bromance on the Rocks?

Building stronger ties with Srpska may not be at the forefront of Vucic’s mind these days, however, since he is engrossed in his campaign for re-election. Until mid-January, he hadn’t been seen in public with Dodik for a month, and when they met in Belgrade on 14 January, the usual joint press conference was not held. This may have been a reflection of the sensitivity of the event: Vucic asked Dodik and the rest of Republika Srpska officialdom to participate in the Bosnian central institutions, in effect telling them to lift the boycott they launched in July 2021 in protest of the UN high representative’s decree criminalizing the denial of genocide related to the Srebrenica mass killings in 1995.

There are other signs of a change in mood. Local media report on the new U.S. sanctions on Dodik over his secessionist statements and obstruction of the work of Bosnian state institutions, and wonder whether the EU will follow suit. Serbia apparently would not support any such sanctions and its friend Hungary might not vote for them if they come to fruition. Nothing must jeopardize peace, as all leaders in the region repeat. With two months to go before Serbia’s presidential and parliamentary elections, the usual campaign talk of its endless EU accession process and sputtering economic progress fills the air.

Mirjana Nikolic is a journalist with the Serbian citizen activism and journalism organization CRTA. She contributes to CRTA’s Istinomer (Truth-O-Meter) and Open Parliament projects.