If the West is not careful, Russia will turn the Balkans into a second front – Middle East Monitor

This month has probably been the most crushing for Russia since it launched its invasion of Ukraine nearly seven months ago. In an aggressive counter-offensive operation, Ukrainian forces recaptured the cities of Kharkiv and Kupyansk, quickly recapturing 3,000 square kilometers of territory and driving out Russian forces. Apart from Kherson and the annexed territories in the east of the country, Moscow has so far not been able to maintain a stranglehold on any other major Ukrainian city so far. Seven months later, things are not looking good for Russia.

However, one failure does not necessarily translate into another failure in a different area, as the Kremlin and its various agents remain capable and effective agitators, influencers and disruptors. This is the case in scenarios like those of Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic through the use of the Wagner mercenary group, as well as in Europe and North America, through cyber manipulation and the influence in the political and media sectors. In the Western Balkans, however, it is much deeper and more strongly rooted.

Despite the presence of long-standing internal conflicts and divisions, analysts’ real fear is that in Bosnia – and the Western Balkan region as a whole – Russia could exploit these divisions using local actors, both political than civil.

Politically, the Russians have Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of the Bosnian tripartite presidency who last year raised fears of renewed conflict in the country by courting the secession of regions like Republika Srpska from the nation. Such a move, facilitated by Serbia and, more subtly, Russia, revived thoughts of a return to the traumatic events of 1992-1995 and Serbian aggression.

Since then, and since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with Dodik last year and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic this year, those fears seem to have subsided for now. At any time, however, the Kremlin can easily pick up on these pulses, and there are reports that the Russian Embassy in Bosnia has claimed that President Vladimir Putin and Dodik have a private agreement regarding the steps to be taken in the country. Split.

Much more subtly, Moscow could also use pro-Russian Serbian sympathizers and protesters to project its political interests, exert pressure on authorities or escalate instability in the region. Besides the protesters who demonstrated earlier this year in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western analysts say the Kremlin is paying them and would certainly do so in the future to incite violence by shooting at police in northern Kosovo. .

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According to Reuf Bajrovic, former Bosnian Minister of Energy, Mines and Industry and political analyst currently Vice President of the United States-Europe Alliance, who spoke with Middle East Monitorthe strong resistance of the Ukrainian army to the Russian invasion was a key factor in preventing Moscow from successfully targeting the Western Balkans.

“Russian proxies in Bosnia were about to provoke a rebellion but the long war in Ukraine upset their plans,” he said. “If the Russians had won quickly in Ukraine, Bosnia would have been next.” However, it is not just Moscow that is exploiting the region’s divisions, with Bajrovic pointing out that “the most dangerous aspect of Bosnia’s near-permanent crisis is that Western countries are cooperating closely and allowing some of the Russian proxies , such as the Bosnian Croats party – the HDZ [Croatian Democratic Union].”

Much of these problems and the propensity for instability are a direct result of the Dayton Accords and the power-sharing system that governs the country. Apart from dividing the country into two main areas – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska – the Dayton Accords essentially provide for an over-representation of different interest groups. As pointed out at a European Commission conference 17 years ago, Bosnia had three presidents, 13 prime ministers, 14 parliaments, 147 ministers and 700 parliamentarians. If this is still the case, it is for a population of only around 3.2 million, and all dictated by ethnic quotas. Indeed, it undermines the very sovereignty of Bosnia and ensures that it can never be truly unified under the current system.

The Dayton Accords were, after all, only a temporary measure to end the conflict and heal the wounds to stop the bleeding. It was never meant – at least by any reasonable logic on the Bosnian side – to be a long-term or permanent solution. One of Dayton’s most recent criticisms in this regard came from Erdogan, who said during a press conference with his Croatian counterpart, Zoran Milanovic, in Zagreb that “if one asks where does this distress in Bosnia, I think it comes from Dayton. Unfortunately, Dayton could not be an agreement aimed at a solution in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Russia takes direct advantage of this current dysfunctional system and uses it to maintain its grip on the region, not only through the aforementioned use of local actors and sympathizers on the ground, but also through the fact that it still sits in the ‘Peace Implementation Council’ which oversees the implementation of the Dayton Accords. This gives Moscow a clear legal basis, under international law, to maintain some form of diplomatic influence and have a say in how Bosnia is governed non-sovereignly.

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As Samir Beharic, research fellow at the Balkan Forum and member of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Middle East Monitorthe Dayton Accord “is both a curse and a blessing for Bosnia and its people. It may have ended the war, but politicians mainly use it as a platform for ethno-nationalist rhetoric , the constant threats of secession and warmongering”.

The link to Russia was also seen earlier this year, he said, when Croatian nationalist HDZ chairman Dragan Čović joined pro-Russian Bosnian Serb MPs in voting against Bosnia- Herzegovina, sanctioning Moscow and aligning itself with the EU in its foreign and security affairs. Politics. “Russia will only exploit the scenario in which Serbian and Croatian nationalists widen ethnic divisions in the country,” Beharic stressed.

Recalling that “the Russian ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Igor Kalbukhov, recently threatened Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Ukrainian scenario in case the country decides to join NATO”, he said that the actions of Dodik and other pro-Russian figures are “well-coordinated aimed at dismantling Bosnia and Herzegovina and destabilizing the entire region”, rather than mere “incendiary rhetoric”.

While Western nations have – understandably – focused on Ukraine and the ongoing conflict, they have largely forgotten or overlooked the efforts Russia is leading in the Western Balkans. Although the US Ambassador to Bosnia recently acknowledged the problem and reiterated that Washington and the West “will not leave [Bosnia-Herzegovina] to Russia”, as well as other ambassadors stating that the presence of the EU and NATO in the region is important for its stability, they have still largely enabled the Kremlin to fill the void in the region and to encourage divisions in Bosnia.

Beharic insisted on the need “for greater attention from key players in the West, who have been placating Russian puppets in the Balkans for too long. Now is the time for the US, UK and the EU to counter the perverse influence of Russia, which has filled the vacuum created in the Balkans by the lack of engagement of external actors from the West.”

LILY: Bosnia and Herzegovina’s regional challenges

The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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