BELGRADE (Reuters) - When the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia met the leader of the Serbian half of the country in 2009 to criticize his inflammatory rhetoric, Milorad Dodik was in no mood to listen.
As a less aggressive successor to the Bosnian Serb leaders who had fueled Europe's deadliest war since World War Two, Bosnia's Serb Republic President was initially a darling of Washington. But in recent years Dodik has angered the West by seeking ever greater autonomy for his part of the country.
He reopened old wounds in 2009 by saying Bosnian Muslims had themselves staged infamous attacks on Sarajevo's main market in 1994 and 1995 which killed more than 100 people.
"Denying the fact of the attacks was like denying Srebrenica, and those who do so would be treated like Holocaust-deniers -- at best considered marginal elements, on the lunatic fringe, with a profoundly negative agenda," Ambassador Charles English, a veteran diplomat with years of service in the Balkans, told Dodik.
The brusque September 2009 meeting, recounted in one of dozens of U.S. embassy cables on the topic obtained by WikiLeaks and seen by Reuters, captures Dodik's increasingly defiant attitude and his push toward secession, a push that many diplomats and regional officials see as the greatest danger to stability in the Balkans today.
"I am convinced in this mission (secession) and I will fight for it," Dodik told reporters last month. "Maybe the moment is not right now but I will not give up."
The 1992-95 war pitched Bosnian Serbs, who wanted to create an independent state along ethnic lines, against the country's Muslim Bosniaks. A 1995 peace deal ended the fighting -- some 100,000 people had died -- but left Bosnia divided between Orthodox Serbs, Muslims and Catholic Croats.
An international overseer, known as the High Representative, still has ultimate say over the country. In recent years, he has occasionally used his powers to overturn laws Dodik has pursued to undermine the state government.
The cables reveal that Washington wanted the High Representative to take a tougher line.
"Dodik is becoming increasingly -- and dangerously -- defiant and vitriolic in the absence of a clear response from the High Rep," English wrote about one episode in a cable from June 2009.
ROLLING BACK THE CLOCK?
Dodik "has increased the tempo of his efforts to roll back reforms and undermine the state," an October 2009 cable reads. "His aim appears to be -- at a minimum -- to restore to the Republika Srpska (RS) the level of autonomy it enjoyed at the end of the 1992-95 war."
Diplomats and analysts have long speculated on the aims of the "rough-edged and somewhat volatile SNSD leader," as a 2006 cable calls Dodik. A May 2009 cable describes his bluster as dangerous, whatever his goal.
"Although Dodik's rhetoric sounds like absurd posturing to outsiders, the RS (Republika Srpska) public takes it at face value and sees him as the RS's defender," the cable said.
"At a minimum, this creates a climate within the RS that makes it impossible for any politician, including Dodik, to make the compromises, including on state-building reforms, necessary to move Bosnia closer to NATO and the EU."
"More dangerously, it creates a climate where Serbs see the state as an enemy and raises hopes among the RS public that at some point, Dodik's 'legal arguments' will prevail and the RS will finally secure its divorce; hopes that are further raised by Dodik's regular speculation about such a possibility."
One cable recounts concern expressed by Bosnian Defense Minister Selmo Cikotic, a moderate typically cautious about what he says. The cable was written after a 2007 meeting between Dodik and the country's four Bosnian Serb generals.
"Cikotic also said he had intelligence information that Russia and (then Serbian) Prime Minister (Vojislav) Kostunica were providing direct encouragement to Dodik, and engaging in efforts to destabilize the situation," Ambassador English wrote.
"Cikotic urged the ambassador to not back away from the confrontation with Republika Srpska (RS) Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, who had created an artificial crisis for political purposes. Cikotic said only a 'credible threat of force' would compel Dodik to back down."
Asked to comment on the cables, Dodik told Reuters they showed a continued pattern of foreign interference in Bosnian affairs. "Ambassadors should not run the country, they should act as they do in other countries, that's all we want," he said.
On reports of Defense Minister Cikotic's meeting with the U.S. ambassador, Dodik said: "It's unbelievable how a defense minister is trying to interfere in local politics... It is interference by the military into civilian affairs."
Dodik called the description of him as "rough-edged and somewhat volatile" the opinion of the author. His leadership showed otherwise, he said. "Only a stable person can withstand pressure put on us for years from people like English."
For his part, Cikotic told Reuters that while he does "not think that Ambassador English has put it falsely ... I am also positive that I would not use such a direct language."
The cables underline how political division within the European Union and elsewhere complicate the international community's ability to respond forcefully in Bosnia.
"EU interlocutors expressed concern about Dodik's threats in BiH," said a 2007 cable on U.S.-EU consultations, referring to Bosnia and Herzegovina. "A few interlocutors questioned EU willingness to support very tough steps, including ultimately removing Dodik."
In April 2009, English expressed doubts about whether the EU could give proper support to Bosnia when the Office of the High Representative (OHR) eventually ends its mission there.
"We are not convinced the Europeans are ready to manage post-OHR Bosnia," English wrote in a cable entitled 'What to Do about a Problem Called Bosnia'.
"While Europe may believe that its 'pull' is sufficient to overcome Bosnia's deep ethnic divisions or its dysfunctional state structures, the evidence suggests otherwise.
"Part of the problem is that the EU itself is divided about Bosnia. Among member states, only a handful, most notably the UK, appear to have a clear grasp of the dangers posed by Bosnia's current political dynamics."
The cable also alluded to the West's slow response to the start of the Bosnian war.
"Simply 'handing off' the Bosnia problem to the EU risks a repeat of the 1991 EU-U.S. dynamics in Bosnia," English warned. "The Serbs are responsive to 'sticks,' but we will have to commit ourselves to use them (e.g., sanctions) in the event of complete intransigence."
(Edited by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)