Map of Bosnia and Herzegovina - © RoundGlobalMaps/Shutterstock

© RoundGlobalMaps/Shutterstock

The start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, paradoxically, may have avoided a new open confrontation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is one of the reflections by Edina Bećirević, a professor at the University of Sarajevo and an expert on Russian influence in the Western Balkans. An interview

12/06/2023 -  Francesco Martino Sarajevo

Since February 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, what do you see as the most significant developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

I think it is important to go back to a couple of months before the aggression against Ukraine, when the president of the Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik started a real secessionist adventure, imposing laws that openly challenge the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a moment of serious crisis: according to the Western secret services and many diplomats my colleagues and I spoke to, we were very close to the resumption of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dodik was one step away from declaring secession, a move that would not be accepted peacefully by pro-Bosnian forces. We all feared the onset of war. Dodik paid a visit to Putin, probably in November 2021, and shortly thereafter began pushing his secessionist agenda, and this is surely no accident.

However, I am convinced that the beginning of the war in Ukraine paradoxically prevented the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Let me explain: many have studied the Russian influence in the Western Balkans, but the analysis at the political level has been absolutely disconnected from the decision-making level. Only when Russia invaded Ukraine did most European countries and officials wake up. Dodik then stopped making overtly secessionist institutional demands. He basically stopped because he felt threatened by the West. He saw how the West united against Putin and probably thought: "If this is the reaction against the Kremlin, what could happen to me if I make a similar move?". So Dodik stopped calling for secession and started playing a more cooperative role with the West.

And how do you see the situation today?

I believe that there is currently no real risk of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unfortunately, however, the EU and the US have begun a strategy of co-opting Serbia and Serbian political forces, hoping to alienate them from Russia. Politically, Dodik got everything he wanted, was not adequately punished, and continues to spread hateful rhetoric. And it's not just Dodik, but also the Croatian leader Dragan Čović: the two are in a sort of alliance that recalls the interference of Serbia and Croatia in the internal balance of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time of Tuđman and Milošević.

Furthermore, the changes to the electoral law imposed by the High Representative benefited the Croatian side and also strengthened the ethno-national political component. The Bosnian electorate is very angry that it seems that Dodik and Čović – who have so far been treated by the West as destabilising forces – are suddenly acceptable to the West.

How can one describe the Russian influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the region, especially at the level of security policy?

I think the most negative Russian influence is at the political level, not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also in Serbia and especially in Montenegro. In Serbia we cannot talk about unwanted influence, because Serbia does want Russian influence. But in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina we can see really aggressive Russian influence. At the political level this is closely linked to the Serbian Orthodox Church, the academic world, and some media.

In Montenegro, for example, a majority of the population has very strong pro-Russian feelings. I believe that the West has long ignored this hybrid ideology of Russia to assert the so-called "Russian world". And the West is repeating the same mistake by ignoring Serbia's very explicit demands to create a “Serbian world”. These two plans must be analysed together. In these countries, in academia and among the majority of intellectuals, the media narrative is pro-Russia. The same goes for Republika Srpska: for years something has been built that cannot be deconstructed overnight, precisely because of these positive attitudes of the majority of the population. There is a collective narrative and ideology that cannot now be turned positively towards the West.

I think the key answer is at the level of pan-Slavic ideology, where the Orthodox Church, as I said, plays a very important role. There is also a strategy of funding far-right ethno-nationalist groups that have spread across Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and the Serbian part of Kosovo. They have therefore penetrated this area and are able to maintain this constant feeling of instability. We constantly feel on the brink of conflict, sometimes more, sometimes less. The main Russian agenda right now for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Western Balkans in general is to maintain this state of perennial insecurity.

Are there other reasons why the war in Ukraine has somehow prevented the outbreak of a new conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Dodik today cannot unilaterally start a war in Bosnia, nor carry out his secession plan, nor join Serbia. He can't do it, Russia is far away. It is not easy to send Wagner militias to Republika Srpska; and Bosnia and Herzegovina is covered by Western intelligence. So, in all fairness, without the help of Serbia – which is now not interested in the conflict in Bosnia – and without the direct help of Russia, they cannot start a war. But they can keep the idea of the destruction of Bosnia or the declaration of independence and secession. They can keep it alive and wait for the geopolitical moment to push this plan forward.

From a political point of view, how do you assess the European and Western reaction to what is happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

I think the EU and the West are really out to prevent instability. But the political compromises they have made are disastrous for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They have intelligence on the ground and are eager to prevent serious problems from arising. I'm sure they are ready for serious measures to avoid war, and if Dodik wanted to embark on this adventure now, it would be a disaster for him because the West would not accept to be humiliated by Russia in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But at the political level, considering the electoral law and any constitutional changes, the situation is disastrous.

It's hard to think about any outcome of the war in Ukraine and it's hard to predict what will happen. However, do you think that different outcomes of the war in Ukraine could lead to different consequences for Bosnia and Herzegovina?

It's hard to say. I think the key is not only in Ukraine. The key is in the United States and what will happen in two years. US policy still has its eye on Serbia and continues to think that Serbia will be the factor of stability in the Balkans. History repeats itself. They looked at Milošević as a factor of stability for a long time. So, I think that, in order to keep Serbia on the West's side, maybe they will support Serbia with Kosovo and give them Republika Srpska. All cards are still on the table, and it is really difficult to predict what the American plan is for the Western Balkans. Despite what they officially say, US policy for the Western Balkans is very pro-Serb oriented.

Furthermore, Bosnian-Serb public opinion has never been as anti-NATO as today. What can be done now is to be pragmatic and not to discuss Bosnia and Herzegovina joining NATO, but to continue to make security reforms that bring us closer to NATO, to make our forces compatible with the standards of the Atlantic Pact. I think this is all we can do now, which is no small thing, until something changes in Serbia. I don't think NATO membership will be possible, at least as long as Dodik is in power.


Questo materiale è pubblicato nel contesto del progetto “Serbia e Bosnia Erzegovina, la guerra in Ucraina e i nuovi scenari di rischio nei Balcani occidentali” cofinanziato dal Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale (MAECI). Il MAECI non è in alcun modo responsabile delle informazioni o dei punti di vista espressi nel quadro del progetto. La responsabilità sui contenuti è unicamente di OBC Transeuropa. Vai alla pagina del progetto

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