Further details have emerged concerning Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's recent secret trip to Vienna, as revealed earlier this week by Haaretz.
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Lieberman's office previously confirmed that he held three "sensitive diplomatic meetings" during his visit – one of which has already been revealed to be with Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff, who had long been wanted for questioning by the Israel Police on corruption charges related to Lieberman. Haaretz has learned the identities of Lieberman's two other meetings.
One of the meetings that Lieberman tried to conceal during his secret trip this past weekend was with his close friend and ally, Milorad Dodik, a Serbian nationalist and separatist who currently serves as president of Republika Srpska – one of the semiautonomous regions of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It’s not clear why Lieberman’s office defined this meeting as diplomatically “sensitive,” or why he hid it even from Foreign Ministry staffers.
Senior officials in the Austrian Foreign Ministry told Haaretz that Lieberman also used his weekend in Vienna for what was termed an “unofficial” meeting with Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. For reasons that remain unclear, Lieberman concealed this meeting, too, from both the media and most of his ministry’s senior officials. Kurz kept the meeting low-profile as well: He didn’t report it to the Austrian media, and only a few of his closest advisers knew it had taken place.
Lieberman’s meeting with Dodik took place in one of Vienna’s poshest restaurants. Dodik himself ultimately publicized the fact that the meeting occurred: His office issued a press statement that appeared on Republika Srpska’s official news agency. “Lieberman and Dodik emphasized the close relations between Srpska and Israel and the fact that there are no disagreements between them, and noted that economic cooperation should be increased,” the Serbian-language statement said.
Israel’s ambassador to Albania, David Cohen, who is also responsible for Bosnia-Herzegovina, did not attend Lieberman’s meeting with Dodik. Instead, it was attended by Alexander Nicolic, an Israeli of Serbian origin who serves as head of Republika Srpska’s mission in Jerusalem. Nicolic is a close confidant of Dodik’s, but is also considered close to Lieberman.
A picture of the meeting distributed by Dodik’s office shows Nicolic sitting beside Lieberman, rather than Dodik. Haaretz has learned that the Israeli foreign minister would like to appoint Nicolic as Israel’s next ambassador to Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina after Cohen finishes his posting in another few months. This would be a political appointment rather than a professional one.
Republika Srpska was founded in 1992 as a semiautonomous Serbian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It comprises 49 percent of the state’s territory and about a third of its residents. Some 90 percent of Srpska’s residents are Serbs, and the remaining 10 percent are Bosnian Muslims.
Despite the fact that Republika Srpska isn’t an independent state, Lieberman has invested great efforts in cultivating ties with the province. This disproportionate interest in Srpska isn’t driven solely by international relations, but also – and perhaps even more – by personal relations.
For the past four years, Dodik has nurtured a close friendship and diplomatic alliance with Avigdor Lieberman, his political twin in Israel. The foreign minister, for his part, considers Dodik one of the leaders he is closest to and has made Republika Srpska a strategic target – not only for diplomatic activity, but also for his personal affairs.
The exceptionally close relationship between Lieberman and Dodik was particularly apparent in October 2012. Three days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised the Israeli political scene with the announcement that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu would run jointly in the Knesset elections, Dodik released an official statement of support to the Republika Srpska official news agency.
“I think the union between the two parties will contribute to the strengthening of political stability in Israel and will help Israel’s efforts to preserve its identity and its right to exist,” stressed Dodik in his statement. “Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is a true friend of Srpska.”
The person who made the connection between Liberman and Dodik is Israeli businessman Arie Livne, who is chummy with the foreign minister and a very close associate of the president of Republika Srpska. At the end of October 2011, Livne celebrated his 90th birthday at the Bomi Restaurant in Banja Luka, the Srpska capital. Among the 100 guests from the Srpska elite at the event were Dodik and Lieberman, who had scheduled a visit of several days in the republic around that date.
According to Srpska media reports, Lieberman’s presence at Livne’s birthday celebration in Banja Luka took place during one of at least four visits he made to the republic after December 2010, when he first visited in an official state capacity, during the course of which he met with President Dodik.
Half a year later, in May 2011, Foreign Minister Lieberman came to Srpska for a five-day vacation with a group of businessmen friends of his. President Dodik gave Lieberman and his pals a royal reception and held a dinner for them at a Banja Luka restaurant. Lieberman spent the vacation enjoying the beauties of nature, playing tennis and dining at local restaurants.
In September 2012, Lieberman again visited Srpska. Part of the visit was official and part of it was private. Accompanying Lieberman on that occasion, along with his two sons, were a number of friends from the business world. After that visit, a Bosnian news site reported that the businessmen who accompanied Lieberman were from the tourism and construction industries.
According to that same report, the businessmen expressed interest in advancing tourism projects and in the wood-processing industry in Srpska. Several days prior to that visit, Arie Livne granted an interview to the local media and revealed that talks were underway on instituting charter flights from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Banja Luka and on Israel’s National Water Company Mekorot contracts in Srpska. “A few years ago no one in Israel knew where Banja Luka is,” said Livne in that interview. “Lieberman has been many places around the world but he has fallen in love with Srpska.”
In addition to meeting with President Dodik and other high local officials, Lieberman took advantage of the visit for touring, restaurant meals and wine tastings with a number of his friends from the business world and his two sons in the city of Trebinje, in the southern part of the autonomous region. The highlight of that visit was a banquet in Lieberman’s honor at a castle owned by Serbian film director Emir Kusturica, at which President Dodik sat next to Lieberman.
Dodik, 55, led his party to victory in the 2006 elections. He first became prime minister and subsequently became president. From his very first moment in office, he pursued a separatist nationalist policy aimed at achieving independence for Republika Srpska and its disengagement from Bosnia-Herzegovina. He controls his party with an iron hand and operates with hardly any opposition.
One of the ways Dodik garnered popularity was through his systematic attacks on the Bosnian Muslims and the international community. An American State Department cable from July of 2008 that was revealed on WikiLeaks noted that despite his failure in the economic field Dodik maintains his popularity. According to the cable, “He is widely admired as a leader who is not afraid to stand up for Serbs against the international community and Bosniaks in Sarajevo -- all of whom he actively portrays as enemies of Serbs and the RS.”
Dodik is known for denying the role of the Serbs and in particular the Srpska Army in the acts of slaughter and war crimes against the Bosnian Muslims during the civil war in Bosnia. In April 2010 he ordered a re-examination of a Srpska 2004 government report on the June 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and teens were slaughtered by Serbian forces from Srpska under the command of Ratko Mladic. The International Criminal Court defined the slaughter as genocide. The government report took responsibility for the massacre but Dodik denied this and claimed the numbers of people murdered were inflated.
“Dodik is a local sheriff of the exact sort Lieberman loves,” says a senior source at the Foreign Ministry. “A strong leader who rules with an iron hand and does not attribute any importance to concepts like human rights, freedom of speech or a free press. He is also a host of the sort Lieberman loves – hospitable with all his heart and a lot of food and wine.”
Lieberman’s bureau has responded: “We do not want to comment on the details in this report.”