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Why Was Mike Pence Hobnobbing with a Sanctioned Genocide Denier?

The former vice president hung out in Hungary—where else?—with a man who wants to destabilize the Balkans.
October 1, 2021
Why Was Mike Pence Hobnobbing with a Sanctioned Genocide Denier?
Former Vice President Mike Pence (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Last week, former Vice President Mike Pence became the latest pro-Trump figure to fly to Budapest to speak alongside a range of Central and Eastern European politicians, including a number of anti-democratic leaders. Pence’s visit—where he headlined the biennial “Budapest Demographic Summit,” aimed at promoting supposedly pro-family policies—fit a broader trend of Trumpist figures looking to the region for illiberal inspiration, and for potential help in returning to power in the United States.

Pence’s visit, however, went further than any previous high-level travels to the region—to a shocking degree. While in Hungary, Pence met and schmoozed with Milorad Dodik, a genocide denier directly sanctioned by the United States for his ongoing efforts to break up Bosnia. Photographs from the event showed Pence and Dodik not only sharing the stage but also shaking hands and smiling for the camera:

Pence and Dodik, as pictured on Dodik’s Facebook page.

According to the Facebook page for Dodik’s political party (pictured above), Pence “congratulated Dodik on his speech at the gathering and wished him success and happiness in his further work.” Pence, now a private citizen, has not publicly commented on the meeting, and the Heritage Foundation, where Pence has been named a visiting fellow, did not respond to questions.

While Dodik’s name may not be familiar to most Americans, he’s certainly a familiar figure to the American government, on both sides of the political aisle. When he was sanctioned by the Obama administration in January 2017, a Treasury Department press release said Dodik “poses a significant threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Bosnia. The Trump administration not only maintained these sanctions against Dodik but even expanded direct sanctions against his closest associates in 2018, accusing them of “significant” corruption.

And it’s not hard to see why. As the former head of the Serb-dominated region of Bosnia, and now as the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Dodik has spent the bulk of the past few years calling for one clear goal: breaking up Bosnia and upending the fragile political consensus in the Balkans. Dubbed simultaneously as potentially “one of the most dangerous men in Europe” and an “ardent pro-Russian nationalist”—and reportedly recruiting Russian-trained mercenaries to his side—Dodik says that he wants to unite parts of Bosnia with an expansionist Serbia.

Dodik’s ambitions may seem like far-flung desires with little impact on U.S. policy, but he has played an outsized role in a region that just a generation ago collapsed into the worst, most genocidal violence Europe has seen since the Second World War. And regional security concerns are hardly a thing of the past. Just last month, the Serbia-Kosovo border became the latest site of regional tensions, with multiple Kosovar ministry buildings attacked following a new policy on license-plate issuances. Serbia—which continues to refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence—proceeded to conduct military maneuvers near the border, as well as fly military aircraft along the border, according to Reuters.

And Dodik, perhaps more than any other regional politician, knows exactly how to play on these legacies, stoking nationalist fires however he can. For instance, he has referred to the Srebrenica genocide—a 1995 atrocity in which Bosnian Serb troops slaughtered over 8,000 Muslim men and boys—as a “fabricated myth.” In 2016, Dodik also applauded the creation of a plaque honoring Radovan Karadžić, a convicted war criminal who oversaw the Srebrenica genocide.

“The meeting with Dodik and his entire presence at the summit in Budapest is a pretty extraordinary lapse in judgment by Pence and his team,” Jasmin Mujanović, author of a recent book on political dynamics in the Balkans, told me by email yesterday. “Given that Dodik and another leading member of his party are still under U.S. sanctions—which the Trump administration actually expanded—Pence is flirting with breaking U.S. laws so that he can do a photo op with a secessionist, ultra-nationalist, Bosnian Genocide denier, and premier regional Russian asset. It’s really a mind-boggling decision by the former vice president.”

So why would Pence do this? Why would he choose to publicly glad-hand a genocide denialist who is sanctioned by the United States and who threatens the stability of the entire Balkans?

One potential answer lies in the seedy lobbying world surrounding the president for whom Pence served. In 2018, Dodik’s party hired a pair of former Trump campaign aides as lobbyists, despite Dodik’s close embrace of both Russia and Serbia’s increasingly autocratic president, Alexander Vučić. (As one of the region’s budding autocrats, Vučić recently described former Serbian genocidaire Slobodan Milošević as a “great” president.) Along the way, other high-ranking members of Trump’s presidential campaigns met with Serbian elite, including those close to Vučić. Shortly thereafter, one of the lobbyists, Mike Rubino, jumped ship from lobbying for Dodik’s team and landed directly in the Trump administration. Richard Grenell—who wore several hats in the Trump administration and who allegedly violated foreign lobbying disclosure rules—also grew close with Serbia’s leadership, a relationship that has continued since Trump lost his re-election bid. Such links were one reason the Trump administration appeared to take such a clearly pro-Serbian bent over the past few years.

Of course, it is possible that Pence’s photo op was the result of bad staff work—that he did not know of all the other participants in the conference. Likewise, it’s possible that he simply didn’t care about appearing alongside Dodik if it meant a chance for Pence to share his social conservative beliefs in Hungary, Europe’s sudden hotspot for MAGA-minded Americans.

To be sure: Demographic trends can be immensely valuable to study and learn from, and family policy can be an enormously important part of governance. But in some cases, “pro-family” talk and discussion of demography can easily slide into bigotry. And it didn’t take much to discern the homophobic, anti-immigrant animus propelling the politicians who joined Pence at the Budapest conference.

While Pence spent part of his talk saying that he hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, those he joined went much further. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—a autocratic leader who welcomed the nativist Tucker Carlson to Budapest just a few weeks ago—claimed that the “Western left wing” was “attacking our children” via “gender ideology and the LGBTQ lobby.” Vučić railed against “liberal political Marxism” and bizarrely claimed both that it is “impolite if you speak about children” and that there is a “rule-of-law jihadi war” against those who don’t want to address climate change. And Dodik, meanwhile, wondered aloud if there would even be any (white) Europeans living in Europe in a half-century. “Who will live in Europe fifty years from now?” Dodik asked. “Will there be Europeans? I live in a region only 4.5 hours from here, where migrants come from the Middle East. Do you think it is far from Europe? No, it is not.”

All told, Pence’s Budapest visit was further confirmation of the Trumpist GOP’s increasing willingness to side with entrenching autocrats in the region, and with the authoritarians who found common cause in Trump—even while those same anti-democratic forces routinely remain among the most pro-Chinese and pro-Russian elements in the region. And now that Pence has shown a clear willingness to mingle with the illiberal politicians directly sanctioned by Washington, all bets are off. After all, if leaders of the Republican party are now willing to publicly back sanctioned genocide denialists leading autocratic forces bent on destabilizing Eastern Europe, there’s little reason to think they’ll stop there.

Casey Michel

Casey Michel, a journalist who covers transnational corruption, is the author of American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History (St. Martin’s Press, 2021). Twitter: @cjcmichel.