What Russia Really Wants in the Balkans

Foreign Policy, 23.11.2021
Vesna Pusic, ex vice primer ministra y ex ministra de RREE de Croacia

The Kremlin is destabilizing Bosnia and Herzegovina in pursuit of broader strategic goals

The legendary Bosnian journalist Boro Kontic said recently that Bosnia and Herzegovina feels like a decades-long Groundhog Day: Agreements are being signed, institutions founded and built, applications submitted, elections won and lost, conferences convened, issues raised, evaluations prepared, and then—nothing. Twenty-six years since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement—which was more or less forced on the ethnic Bosniak, Croat, and Serb leaders to end a bloodbath—everything is being repeated over and over again, as if there is no time, no memory, and no history.

But what makes the Groundhog Day metaphor so accurate is the fact that even those authorized by the U.N. Security Council to keep the peace so that, presumably, Bosnia could make progress seem content to leave the country running in place. Despite the money, effort, and time invested in state-building, whenever there is a disagreement, policymakers seem to think it’s acceptable to take the country back 26 years, when it was only just emerging from one of the cruelest conflicts since World War II. Some officials are trying to justify this by calling it “the return to the original Dayton.” The children of the siege of Sarajevo are approaching middle age now. They need a new narrative.

Instead, there is no new narrative and no new reality. Bosnia is in the middle of a deep crisis yet again, as one member of its tripartite presidency, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, uses warmongering rhetoric and savagely attacks Bosnia’s fragile institutions in a flagrant effort to destroy the country.

Dodik is an interesting but not so unusual phenomenon. In many ways, he is a small-time Viktor Orban wannabe. Like the Hungarian prime minister, he started out as a democratic politician—chosen and promoted by the West. He gradually slid into nationalism and then into hardcore nationalism. Like Orban, he became very rich during his tenure in politics, which inevitably led to autocratic government. And like most autocrats in Eastern and Central Europe, he looked for and found his protectors in Russia.

Dodik has achieved a measure of notoriety by challenging the very existence of Bosnia. The key difference is that Dodik, unlike Orban, doesn’t have a state. This makes his position considerably more precarious—but also enticing for outside players seeking to meddle in Balkan affairs.

Earlier in his career, when Dodik thought that his future lay with the West, he publicly recognized the genocide in Srebrenica, renounced Bosnian Serb war criminals, and positioned himself as a staunch supporter of Bosnia’s unity and a future in the European Union. As he switched loyalties, first to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and then to Moscow for protection, his policies and rhetoric changed dramatically. It happened gradually, over time.

Today, Dodik is no longer just a pawn of Serbian politics. Instead, he is holding Serbian politics hostage.

I first noticed it when taking part in a local TV program with him in Banja Luka in the early 2000s. We somehow ended up discussing soccer, and suddenly Dodik said that in a match between the main team from Serbia and its rival in Bosnia, he would definitely root for the Serbian team. As soccer in the Balkans is never only about soccer, even then, when he was still viewed as an ally of the West, I saw his comment as an alarming sign of a change in his position.

Since then, Dodik has served as an agent of Serbian politics in destabilizing Bosnia and as a backup plan for pacifying the more nationalistic segment of Serbian public opinion in case Serbia makes a deal and recognizes Kosovo. In that case, Serbia might use Dodik’s secessionist policies to justify its demand for the annexation of Republika Srpska—one of the two administrative units that make up postwar Bosnia—as compensation for losing Kosovo. But by transforming himself into an instrument of Russia’s broader geopolitics, Dodik’s relationship with Serbia has also changed. Today, Dodik is no longer just a pawn of Serbian politics. Instead, he is holding Serbian politics hostage.

On his own, Dodik is quite unimportant. His courage, arrogance, and relevance are purely the product of Russian support. As he said himself when he first threatened the Bosnian army with destruction and floated the idea of Republika Srpska forming its own army, “If anybody tries to stop us, we have friends who will defend us.”

This is why all the recent meetings of the leaders of EU member states with Dodik have been somewhat pathetic. All the concessions and compromises they are offering—such as drastically reducing the authority of the Office of the High Representative, removing the three foreign judges from the country’s Constitutional Court, or circulating maps and proposals that would normalize boarder changes in the Balkans—have not appeased Dodik or changed his virulent disruptive rhetoric. That’s because he is not really the one who can make a deal.

Indeed, the destabilization of Bosnia and the entire Western Balkans region can’t be blamed on Dodik or other local firebrands alone. They are just agents on the ground for Russia’s disruptive politics. Before EU leaders engage diplomatically with Dodik or his Kremlin sponsors, they need to think carefully about what exactly Moscow seeks to gain from destabilizing the Balkans and if there is a resolution that could benefit both sides.

For many years, Russia treated the EU as a respectable but mostly harmless political club. This changed dramatically after 2014. At its Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania in the fall of 2013, the EU signed special agreements with Georgia and Moldova and in June of 2014 with Ukraine. From then on, Russia started viewing the EU like NATO—as an enemy.

The war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea followed in close succession. The Western reaction was to impose sanctions and then more sanctions. There is no doubt that Russia’s actions required and deserved a strong reaction. But one consequence was the gradual breakdown of communication between Russia and the West.

The NATO-Russia Council, a permanent item on every NATO ministerial meeting, was the first to go. Inviting the Russian foreign minister and other top officials to different EU councils was next. All official and well-established, unofficial communication channels were disappearing one by one. At the same time, Russia’s policies were growing more aggressive, more intrusive, more disruptive, and more dangerous.

The Kremlin identified the Western Balkans as an ideal playground for its influence operations and political provocation—it’s not that hard to disrupt and destabilize.

The Kremlin identified the Western Balkans as an ideal playground for its influence operations and political provocation—constantly probing how far it could push before the West reacted. From the Russian perspective, it has many advantages: It is relatively small, divided among many rather poor states, and, considering its recent history, not that hard to disrupt and destabilize.

It is also surrounded by EU territory and filled with countries that aspire to join the union. The high-level Russian diplomats and politicians dealing with this issue are likely surprised at the complete lack of EU response to all their disruptive efforts in the Western Balkans and in Bosnia in particular. The region has been transformed into a virtual chessboard, on which Russia wants to exert influence and compete with the EU and the United States. But for now, Russia is the only one playing.

The EU has for some time had problems speaking with one voice on its enlargement policy, let alone taking concrete practical steps toward bringing the Western Balkan states closer to EU membership. Going back on its promise to start accession talks with North Macedonia, after the country managed to negotiate a bilateral solution to the seemingly intractable “name issue” with Greece, was a particularly hard blow to everybody in the region.

After that, the EU lost its sense of direction in the Western Balkans, while public opinion in the region started increasingly favoring Russia and China as more reliable partners than the EU. Meanwhile, two key EU players seem—for now—to have exited the stage when it comes to EU policy in the region: outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, as Germany puts together its new government, and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose focus is on France’s upcoming presidential election.

Russia does not need Dodik or other Balkan politicians. What it needs is to reopen and reestablish communication channels with the EU and the United States. If it is going to resolve many of its problems, the EU needs that, too. As for the Western Balkans, and for Bosnia in particular, the problems can only be solved between the EU and Russia. There is no doubt that Russia is the main disruptor in the Balkans, using its local pawns to implement that policy. Its objectives, however, most likely transcend the region and include finding a broader compromise with the EU.

Russia is particularly sensitive about its so-called “near abroad”—the former Soviet republics that in the turmoil of the early 1990s became independent states. The three Baltic states are by now well-established EU and NATO members, and open aggression there would bring much more trouble than any potential benefit for Russia. But Ukraine and Georgia are a different story. At some point, they were both promised NATO membership, and in 2013 and 2014 both signed somewhat vague agreements with the EU that could be interpreted as a first step toward EU membership.

There is no doubt that Russia is the main disruptor in the Balkans, using its local pawns to implement that policy. Its objectives, however, most likely transcend the region.

In the past 13 years, Russia has intervened militarily in both Georgia and Ukraine and has brought Belarus back into its fold by supporting the country’s internationally isolated dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko. These are the countries that Russia sees as being in its sphere of interest and directly pertinent to its security. Keeping them in a permanent state of latent or low-intensity conflict interferes with many other Russian interests, such as having its new gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 certified by Germany. These are the major issues on which Russia needs to come to some kind of understanding with the West.

In this longer game, Balkan disruptors are merely bargaining chips rather than players. Eventually, Russian and EU leaders will have to sit down and discuss the security situation in Europe. The only question is whether that will happen before or after the destruction of a democratic European future for the Western Balkan states.

Reestablishing communication with Moscow would not in any way mean approving of Russia’s policies. But without communication there is no chance of finding diplomatic solutions; the alternative is more of the current brinkmanship, with weak states permanently hovering between state capture by their own local Russian-supported autocrats and total failure.

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