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10 March 2016

Bosnia and Herzegovina under the gun

20 years after the war, the current confrontation between Russia and the West is generating new tensions in the Balkans

Twenty years have passed since the end of the Bosnian conflict – the greatest crisis in Europe since World War II – and new risks in the Balkans are arising from the escalating confrontation between Russia and the Western world. Moscow’s conflicts with the European Union and the US are accompanied by mutual efforts to diminish the other party’s influence in the region, where stability is still ensured by an international presence (in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina). Although the Balkans are not under threat of large-scale destabilization, given the inclination of the local elites towards reconciliation and integration into the Western community, interethnic and political tensions persist. And these tensions might be further aggravated by the increasingly strained relations between Russia and the West.

In the absence of any new, fully-fledged economic projects in the Balkans, Moscow’s policy of supporting forces seeking confrontation with the US and EU, as well as initiatives with conflict potential, has come to the fore. One case in point is Moscow’s support for the essentially separatist statements made by Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), on its withdrawal from the Bosnian legal field, establishment of close links with extra-parliamentary nationalist forces in Serbia, as well as support for the recent anti-NATO protests in Montenegro which ended in clashes. Clearly, Russia is trying to hinder integration of the remaining countries of the former Yugoslavia with the European Union and NATO, which would serve the West by ensuring security in the region. And although Moscow is unable to reverse the region’s integrational vector – even more so with the aggravating economic crisis in Russia – it is still capable of slowing the process down.

The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina seems most complex when set against this backdrop. Being a potential candidate for accession to the EU and NATO, the country is at risk of becoming the main battleground between Russia and the countries of the West – despite their being the guarantors of the peace agreement. Russia has twice signaled its readiness to confront Western partners over BiH at the forum of the UN Security Council, which would shift focus away from “the burden of the Ukrainian crisis”.

Thus, in November 2014, for the first time in 14 years Moscow abstained from voting on the extension of the mandate of the NATO-backed EUFOR forces operating in BiH. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, said at the time that while multinational forces had played an important role in the region after the end of the military conflict in 1995, their presence there now “could be seen as a tool to accelerate the state’s integration with the EU and NATO”. Six months later, in July 2015, Russia vetoed the British draft resolution condemning the “Srebrenica genocide”, although it hadn’t previously undermined the verdict of the International Court of Justice in 2007, and even used the same wording in its own line of argument on the conflict in South Ossetia.

In the light of the crisis in international relations, the vulnerability of Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to grow – from the point of view of security – due to the lack of an effective model of governance in the country, as well as the political and inter-ethnic tensions sustained over the twenty post-war years. In accordance with the 1995 Dayton Accords, Bosnia and Herzegovina maintains a complex ethno-confessional governmental structure. This consists of two entities, the Republika Srpska, which is populated mainly by Serbs, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, populated mainly by Bosnian Muslims and Croats. This is a union of two territorial entities with separate statuses. The governmental bodies are still very weak, and the local elites (representing Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats) manifest opposing views on governance, the objectives of reforms and the integration processes – primarily, the issue of NATO accession.

Local leaders use the specific framework of the Dayton Accords as an excuse for stagnation and to neglect opportunities to foster cooperation. Moreover, Bosnian legislation utilizes mechanisms that, although they protect the vital interests of each of the three peoples, in fact block any major decision-making efforts. Attempts by the West to create a more workable model that could carry out reforms indispensable to accelerating Euro-Atlantic integration have not generated tangible results. It is clear that any such reforms not only need the consensus of the ruling elites, but also consistent support on behalf of the Western guarantors of peace. However, there is still an obvious rupture between Russia and the West. Besides this, the guarantors have placed their bets on political forces that have different priorities in terms of foreign policy.

Strictly speaking, Russia is developing both economic and political relations with only one of the two territorial entities of BiH – the Republika Srpska. Russian authorities regularly host meetings with RS president Milorad Dodik and side with him in his disputes with his opponents, even though his stance is usually perceived in the region and in the West as destabilizing, separatist and a hindrance to cooperation. Interestingly, Dodik has been received twice by president Putin amidst the crisis in relations with Western countries. Moreover, the latter openly expressed his support before the 2014 elections and wished Dodik success, despite the harsh political struggle in the Republika Srpska and Dodik’s apparent decline in popularity in recent years.

Unlike Western countries, Russia has never condemned Dodik’s statements undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or the decisions of the international administration (the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina). Actually, one of Moscow’s main emphases in recent years has been that it is high time to close the Office of the High Representative, which is overseeing implementation of the peace agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even stated that it was playing “a harmful role”, and assessed its powers as “dictatorial”.

Moscow supported Dodik’s initiative to hold a referendum, and to declare a vote of no confidence in the court and prosecutor’s office of BiH, and has also never tried to persuade him to abandon the frequently-voiced idea of the secession of the Republika Srpska. Dodik himself pointedly emphasizes his ties with Russia, despite the political entities of BiH not being endowed with powers to conduct foreign policy, which is the prerogative of the central government. But the city of Banja Luka keeps inviting the Russian ambassador, and all domestic and foreign-policy controversies are discussed with him. Thus, during their last meeting on February the 16th, 2016, Dodik informed his guest that the decision to establish a coordination mechanism to conduct negotiations on the future EU membership of Bosnia and Herzegovina was taken without the consent of the government of the Republika Srpska, and would therefore not be recognized.

Moscow appreciates Milorad Dodik as an adherent to the Russian view on the Crimean issue (as the only prominent politician in the Balkans who openly supported the “accession” of the peninsula to Russia), and – even more so – as an opponent to NATO’s enlargement. On this point, Dodik demands a separate referendum on the issue, to be held on the territory of the Republika Srpska, knowing that the majority of residents would vote against it. Taking into account the afore-mentioned blocking mechanisms in Bosnian legislation, it would be very difficult to make a decision on NATO membership, although BiH is formally a candidate country. Under the existing conditions, Russia stands a good chance of halting further enlargement of the Alliance by supporting Serbian nationalists, who are not in a hurry to conduct negotiations with the European Union either. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the last former Yugoslavian country to have only lately submitted an application for EU membership, on February the 15th, 2016. However, the dialogue is going to be very difficult with the stagnating reforms and conflict among local leaders. The non-recognition of the EU negotiation mechanism by the leadership of Bosnian Serbs is a recent case in point.

Thus, the Balkan Peninsula may be facing a new period of tensions in the coming years. The Balkan countries were one of the first to experience the effects of the confrontation between Russia, the US and the European Union, with the abandonment of the “South Stream” gas pipeline project, which would have been beneficial for the region, as well as growing pressure on the issue of sanctions to be imposed on Russia, and disputes in the UN Security Council on sensitive matters of the past hostilities affecting inter-ethnic relations. Whether the effects of these issues can be limited remains to be seen. Who knows how Russia will decide to leverage the Balkans, taking into account its ongoing crisis in relations with the West? Russia’s main leverage today is its alliance with Milorad Dodik, which is an irritant to the Western countries.

Furthermore, the result of this alliance with Dodik is not merely limited to its influence on the Bosnian peacekeeping process and BiH’s Euro-Atlantic prospects, but also in Moscow’s being able to exert pressure on its key partner in the Balkans, Serbia. Belgrade’s success on its route to the European Union – and this is its strategic goal – largely depends on stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina and its ability to keep local Serbs in check. Meanwhile, Dodik is constantly pushing the latter group towards Serbia with promises of speedy reunification.

It would seem that destabilization of the region or encouragement of separatist moves is in contradiction of Russian interests in the Balkans – judging by the interests defined by Russia itself during the last 20 post-conflict years. However, it is extremely difficult to predict Moscow’s moves due to the increasing lack of transparency of its foreign policy. The annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the east of Ukraine, as well as separatist tendencies in Georgia and Moldova, indicate that a unilateral shift of borders and incitement of tensions in the area of its strategic “interests” have become an integral part of the Kremlin’s foreign policy objectives and methods. Prior to 2014 Russia was focused on leveraging the economic strength of its presence in the Balkans, taking into account the region’s EU-integration prospects. Nowadays though, ensuring the “failure” of the EU and NATO in the region seem to have a higher priority for the Kremlin, which bodes for growing instability and a slowdown in Euro-Atlantic integration. 

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