BANJA LUKA, Bosnia and Herzegovina – The slogan on the stickers and shirts demands "Justice for David" (“Pravda za Davida”). But on the eve of Sunday’s parliamentary and presidential elections challenging the dominance of the Balkans’ most vocal pro-Kremlin nationalist strongman, the protesters came for much more.
On Friday night, an estimated 40,000 demonstrators filled central Banja Luka in the latest in a series of protests that the regional entity’s president, Milorad Dodik, says are being financed by Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish.
With raised fists and shouts of “Who killed David?” and “Murderers!,” they assembled to protest the disappearance and death of 21-year-old David Dragicevic, whose body was found covered in mud in a drainage ditch outside of town this March. He had been missing for six days.
The protests have become a catalyst for anger against Dodik’s 15-year rule as prime minister and then president of Republika Srpska – the largely autonomous, Serb-dominated entity whose administrative center is Banja Luka – and the corruption, cronyism and police brutality that many here feel he represents.
Dragicevic was an electrical engineering student, a recognizable figure with his dreadlocks and his love of reggae and hip-hop. A song David wrote when he was 16 years old - with lyrics including "It seems I will not go far, because I'm just another pawn in this story. I'm not going anywhere, I'm wrong, I'm just another boy from the ghetto" - has become the de facto anthem at every Pravda za Davida protest, tapping into a growing anger at Dodik's steady slide into authoritarianism.
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Police and pathologists in Republika Srpska initially claimed that Dragicevic committed suicide or fell into the spot where he was found under the influence of LSD, all this after he'd robbed a house and stolen a laptop.
But Dragicevic's family and friends refused to believe the authorities’ version of events.
“I know the truth,” said Davor Dragicevic, David’s father, address the crowd on Friday. “The top of the Interior Ministry organized the kidnapping and murder of David Dragicevic.”
From the start, Republika Srpska's interior ministry has been the target of the Dragicevic family and the protesters' ire. With Davor Dragicevic leading the way – he has protested every night since March – demonstrators insisted from the beginning that David Dragicevic had been murdered by a "well-known figure," and that Republika Srpska's notoriously corrupt and brutal police have been covering it up.
Even a report by Republika Srpska’s parliament found that David Dragicevic had been murdered (his body was reportedly covered in bruises) and that he hadn’t been under the influence of LSD. The pathologist has since been charged with falsifying the toxicology report. Two police officers have also been charged with stealing evidence – David’s underwear – from an evidence room.
Anger and defiance were the main emotions in the air on Friday night. Before the protest officially started, Davor Dragicevic walked out onto Banja Luka’s central avenue that passes the square and, with a core of protesters in tow, blocked the street.
He wouldn’t led traffic flow until busloads of protesters waiting outside the city were allowed to enter, he said. Earlier in the day, Republika Srpska police, some in armored personnel carriers, were dispatched to search any “suspicious” vehicles that might be bringing protesters to Banja Luka from other towns and cities in the near-autonomous entity. One group of protesters whose bus was stopped by police decided to walk into the city.
“This is a criminal state – the Interior Ministry, the prosecutor’s office, everyone.” said Davor Dragicevic to cheers as he finally took the stage. “They put themselves on the sides of the murderers.”
The fiery Dodik, who has said the only solution for Bosnia and Herzegovina is a “peaceful division” between its three peoples – Bosniaks (Muslim), Serbs (mainly Orthodox Christian) and Croats (Catholic) – can’t serve more than two terms as Republika Srpska president. He is currently seeking election as Serb president of Bosnia’s tripartite national presidency – a vestige of the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War and still form the country’s foundations. Dodik’s current deputy, Zeljka Cvijanovic, is running to replace him as Republika Srpska president.
Dodik is hardly shy about his pro-Kremlin leanings. He has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at least eight times – most recently last week in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi – and accused the West of having an anti-Russia agenda in Bosnia.
“I have not had a single unpleasant situation with the Russians. With others from the West, I always face an ultimatum,” Dodik told Bloomberg last year.
Bosnia’s system of government is among the most complicated in the world. There are five presidents to elect – three at the national level for Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, respectively – and 14 prime ministers at the national, sub-national and local levels, alongside members of those assemblies.
The elections aren’t expected to produce any stunning upsets, though outside of races involving Dodik and Cvijanovic, there are a few other races to watch. For the Bosniak presidency, Sefik Dzaferovic (from the nationalist Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the party that dominates Bosniak politics), is expected to fend off a challenge from media mogul Fahrudin Radoncic and his Union for a Better Future (SBB).
For the Bosnian Croats, right-wing nationalist Dragan Covic – who it has been alleged used Bosniak slave labour for his factory during the 1990s war – is up against Zeljko Komsic, who is at the heart of nationalist Bosnian Croats’ complaints about the country’s electoral laws.
In the federation, both Bosniaks and Croats can vote for the Bosniak and Croat members of the presidency; in 2006, Komsic won the Croat presidency largely behind the support of Bosniaks, angering nationalist Bosnian Croat politicians.
Neither the fiery Dodik nor his deputy Cvijanovic seemed popular at Friday night’s protest, with jeers and boos ringing out at any mention of their names. Nearby campaign posters of theirs were vandalized, though a giant billboard of Dodik and Cvijanovic next to the square remained untouched.
“Milorad laughed in my face,” Davor Dragicevic told the crowd, speaking about when he met the president in person. “Milorad Dodik is the biggest criminal in this nation.”
David Dragičevi’s mother, Suzana, echoed her husband’s comments. “Milorad sees how many of us there are – 40,000. How many are in your tent, [Dodik]? Where is little Zeljka?” she asked.
But the protesters dispersed after a few hours and the evening ended quietly. Some stayed to light candles at the memorial to David Dragicevic that has been on the square since March, stopping for selfies with David’s father. Others walked home along the main avenue, now reopened to traffic, as the smell of popcorn filled the air.
Despite the size of the crowd and the anger on display at Friday’s protest, local commentators told Haaretz that most people don’t think it will be able to topple Dodik from his position as undisputed leader of Bosnia’s more than 1 million Serbs.
“The rally, unfortunately, will not have any substantial impact on the final results of the elections on any level,” said Dragan Bursac, a Banja Luka-based columnist and political commentator.
The tens of thousands on the square, he said, is a “minor, minor number” compared to the hundreds of thousands of Dodik supporters – many of whom are on the entity government’s payroll and are expected to vote for Dodik and friends.
(Update, 10.08.2017: As expected, Dodik secured his spot as the new Serb president of the country's tripartite presidency on Monday, while his deputy, Cvijanovic, was expected to become Republika Srpska president as that count continued.)
Ivana Maric, a Sarajevo-based political analyst, conceded that Dodik is in a “difficult situation” and has seen his support hurt by the protests. However, she doesn’t think his well-oiled, well-funded election machine will be defeated.
It’s also a machine that, as Bursac says, has made use of its control of the media to peddle a particular narrative to the public: That the protests are being financed by Soros, who has also become a figure of hate among the right in countries such as Hungary and Israel. President Donald Trump made a simmilar claim on Friday, saying Soros was involved in making signs featured in protests against the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.
“Nobody was really surprised when the regime called these protesters “soroevski” (“Sorosites”), said Bursac. “But you’d be surprised how many people actually bought into it and believed the propaganda by the regime.”
The Dodik-friendly media has been “pumping the public” with Soros-based conspiracy theories for a long time, added Bursac, who feels that, faced with few media alternatives, many Dodik voters have bought them.
Still, as the protesters faded into the night, a powerful signal had nonetheless been sent to Dodik and friends.
For one, the protest crossed Bosnia’s ethnic lines – no easy feat in a country where ethnic nationalist parties from all sides have a virtual stranglehold on politics and political debate. A Bosniak man, Dzenan Memic, was found dead in Sarajevo in similar circumstances in February 2016. “Justice for David” protesters in Banja Luka have held moments of silence for Memic and also backed his family’s quest for justice.
And as the protesters literally took over the streets in defiance of the authorities – including a request from the Interior Ministry to not hold the protest at all – there seemed to be little concern about repercussions from the entity’s notorious police forces, who have been accused by human rights organization the Council of Europe of abuse and torture, including even mock executions.
“People have realized for the first time they don’t have to be afraid of the police,” one Banja Luka-based journalist, speaking off-the-record, told Haaretz.