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Russia’s war in Ukraine is causing concern in Bosnia. Here’s why

Despite being almost two thousand kilometres away, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine still hit too close to home for many in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ravaged by a brutal and bloody war in the 1990s that saw 100,000 casualties and two million people becoming either refugees or internally displaced in a country of 3.5 million, Bosnians are acutely aware of what Ukrainians are going through. 

After Moscow’s invasion in late February, images of empty supermarket shelves and long lines for passports in the capital Sarajevo appeared in local media outlets, as Bosnians braced for the worst.

Others cleaned up their cellars, which had been used as shelter from the indiscriminate shelling and sniper fire in Bosnia’s besieged cities. 

“Just in case” has become the unofficial motto for most people ever since the war.

It is not simply the spectre of another war that is causing jitters. Some fear Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine and Serbia being a key ally of Moscow will add fuel to the increasing assertiveness of the Bosnian Serb separatist movement.

Miran Kovačević, 25, from Tuzla, a city in the north of Bosnia, saw the first signs of rising fears after his parents began to insist he should renew his passport in late 2021, months before the war in Ukraine. 

“They’d constantly implored me, ‘please go get your passport renewed.’ So I asked them, ‘come on, what’s the big deal?’” Kovačević, who works as a project manager at a local radio station, told Euronews.

“So at some point, we sat down and they said that the situation is no longer stable. ‘The same things happened before the war, and we kept repeating it wouldn’t happen,’ they said.”

“That’s the biggest fear of my parents’ generation: war can come to you anyway, no matter how many times you say it won’t,” Kovačević said.

His parents also came up with a “just in case” plan, where he’d leave for the Netherlands at the first sign of trouble. “I’ve never heard them talk to me like that, so I have to say, I got a little bit scared as well,” Kovačević recalled.

Kovačević’s father passed away in the meantime, making his mother feel even more concerned for her son’s safety.

“Immediately after war broke out in Ukraine, Bosnia was mentioned as being the next in line. My mother said, ‘Please, pack your suitcases, get all you need — we’re not going to go through the same thing again.'” 

“And then we went through the different scenarios, and I said I wouldn’t leave without the rest of my family,” Kovačević recalled.

“Fears grew exponentially because it seemed like everything she talked about became true. Despite reservations, in the end, it feels like some type of conflict is not completely out of the question.” 

From participating in peacekeeping to fomenting divisions

In a country dominated by three major south Slavic ethnic groups — Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks — Russia was always seen as a potentially major disruptor, mostly due to their perceived historical and religious links with ethnic Serbs, who are nominally Eastern Orthodox.

After the belligerents in Bosnia signed the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord and ended the war, Russia — along with scores of other countries and organisations — became a part of the Peace Implementation Council or PIC, a body tasked with overseeing the work of the High Representative, the country’s international peace envoy.

The mandate given to the PIC and the Office of the High Representative (OHR) by the UN Security Council came with the tacit approval of Russia — which holds one of the permanent seats on the body — as a major international power.

Moscow forces also participated in the first NATO-led peacekeeping mission in the early post-war days, a rare occasion where a Russian brigade came under the direct command of their US army counterparts near Tuzla.

At the turn of the millennium and with Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power, Russia began its slow transition back to a more confrontational approach against the West.

Following the NATO intervention in Serbia, the Putin-led Kremlin saw an opportunity to sow disorder in parts of the world it felt came under too much western influence, including Bosnia and the Western Balkans, Kurt Bassuener, Senior Associate and Co-Founder of Democratisation Policy Council, a Berlin-based think-tank, told Euronews.

With the first invasion of the eastern parts of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia gradually escalated its disruptive influence on Bosnia’s peace process, vocally disagreeing with any decision made by the OHR and backed by the PIC and using its embassy’s press releases to launch verbal attacks in what it labels as “separate opinions”.

The Russian embassy in Bosnia also uses its communication channels to deny the war crimes in Ukraine, painting the massacre in Bucha to be “a well-planned provocation prepared with the help of American and European intelligence agencies” in a Telegram post on 20 April — a hallmark sign of a deliberate disinformation campaign meant to divide the society in the country, according to experts.

“Russia has been meddling in Bosnia’s internal affairs for a long time,” Bassuener said.

“It regionally shifted in 2014 from being in a disposition of opportunistic spoiling to aggressive disruption,” Bassuener said. 

This was further helped by the Western parts of the international community’s choice of cautiously taking the backseat instead of the more heavy-handed involvement in domestic politics in the early post-war times, he added.

“Despite all the declarations of western unity, you really don’t see that much change in the western posture on the Balkans and Bosnia. So [Russia] is just sticking to their talking points while also spiking the ball and enjoying the fallout,” he explained.

In July 2021, the Kremlin pushed for the closure of the OHR in the UNSC and was backed by China, despite its objectives being far from completed over the past three decades.

The move ended up being blocked by the abstention of the remaining 13 members of the Security Council, yet Russia managed to get something out of the crisis by having any mention of the OHR and the new peace envoy Christian Schmidt struck from the UN’s semi-annual report on the peace implementation in Bosnia.

In effect, the high-level diplomatic tit-for-tat meant that Russia refused to recognise Schmidt as a valid representative of the international community in Bosnia, this being the first time it has openly rejected the western presence in the country.

The fears were somewhat allayed when Russia begrudgingly agreed to extend the mandate of the remaining NATO and EU-led peacekeeping force, EUFOR, for another year, in the autumn of the same year.

EUFOR was strengthened by additional forces since the February invasion of Ukraine, with the number of peacekeepers in the country rising to about 1,100.

But the mandate, which is up for renewal again in November, might provide an opportunity for Russia to cause further trouble, Bassuener said.

“The thing to keep in mind with peacekeeping is that not only is it intended to keep the peace, it also serves to detract or scare away those who seek to destabilise the country from doing so,” Bassuener said.

“The West is taking a just-in-time delivery approach to security threats, which is no way to operate deterrents.”

“The Russians don’t have to directly start a war in Bosnia. They stand to gain from watching NATO, the EU and the West tie themselves into knots. They have no incentive to calm the situation.”

In late 2021 and early 2022, Bosnia faced the biggest domestic crisis since the end of the war prompted by the leader of Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, fuelling fears that the Serb-dominated entity of the Republika Srpska that comprises about one-half of the country might be headed for succession, fully backed by the Kremlin.

The Dayton Peace Accords divided Bosnia into two main administrative units or entities, the Serb-dominated entity of the Republika Srpska (RS) and the Bosniak- and Croat-majority Federation of the BiH, or FBiH.

The two entities have a certain level of independence in decision-making, with the umbrella state-level institutions holding the reins in key matters, such as taxes and defence.

It is precisely these bodies that Dodik — who currently serves as the Bosnian Serb member of the three-way state-level Presidency — wanted to pull out of, with the promise to break up the country’s small professional army into ethnic subparts seen as the most dangerous of the measures he proposed.

Dodik walked back on his December 2021 announcement after Kremlin’s full-scale invasion, stating in June that his plans had been “put on hold” due to the war in Ukraine.

New crisis, new opportunity for Russian meddling

Yet, the political situation did not improve. Another crisis shook the country in July, this time brought on by a proposal by High Representative Schmidt to adapt the electoral law and the way ethnic representatives are elected.

Protests were launched in Sarajevo in front of the OHR, with people accusing Schmidt of legitimising the ethnic cleansing that took place in Bosnia during the 1990s war.

“The current crisis in Bosnia plays into Russia’s hands by proving, in their eyes, that the international community is a gang that can’t shoot straight and that you have peoples in Bosnia who are going to accuse the darlings of the international community for causing problems in Bosnia,” Bassuener explained.

“If the West demonstrates that Bosnia is an impossible country to handle and that it can’t achieve the goals it set out to achieve, there’s no downside for Russia. All of that is pure gravy for them.”

Since the February invasion of Ukraine, Bosnia remained one of the few European countries — including Belarus, Serbia and Moldova — that has not introduced sanctions against Russia, with Dodik repeatedly blocking the move.

The Bosnian Serb leader justified his insistence on remaining neutral by stating that Bosnia, fully reliant on Russian gas, cannot afford to distance itself from the Kremlin due to potentially “grave economic consequences,” but also close cultural ties with Moscow.

In mid-March, Dodik responded to criticism of his stances, stating at a press conference that “Russian people are good people [with] strong history and culture” while the “Russian state is very important, energy-wise”.

“If there’s anything strange — and everything is strange when it comes to Bosnia — it is that because of the actions of one Milorad Dodik and his lack of desire to join in on the rage and hysteria against the Russians, the Russian Federation did not blacklist Bosnia to block its access to energy sources,” said Dodik, speaking of himself in the third person.

At the same time, Dodik continued to maintain close ties to Putin and the Kremlin by becoming the first European leader to call Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov after the renewed invasion in what he alleges was a conversation about “economic matters”.

He then explained his decision to speak with Russia’s top diplomat by likening it to the phone calls UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson held with Putin in a bid to prevent the war.

This was followed by Dodik’s 16 June trip to the St Petersburg economic forum — also known as Russia’s Davos — where he met with Putin and shook hands in front of cameras despite the rest of Europe and the West shunning the Russian leader and the event altogether.

At the forum, Putin was said to have praised Dodik for remaining loyal to Moscow despite strong international pressure to join the sanctions against Russia, the Kremlin’s official website reported.

Photo-ops with the demi-god

Back home in Bosnia, Moscow pulled out of the PIC entirely in mid-April, rejecting to fund its operations and those of the OHR, despite agreements in place guaranteeing that each of the 55 participating countries has to chip in a mostly symbolic amount.

The Russian embassy in the country took to arguing through statements. Two weeks ago, it found itself involved in a war of words with its US counterparts after Ambassador Michael Murphy said in an interview for Radio Free Europe that Washington “won’t leave Bosnia to Russia”.

“(Russia) doesn’t want to see stability, security, peace and prosperity — a prosperous Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is the problem,” Murphy said.

In a statement last Sunday, the Russian embassy replied by stating that Bosnia is not “like a weak child that needs protection”.

“The whole world saw how (the US) recently ‘defended’ Afghanistan, and prior to that, Iraq, Libya and Yugoslavia,” the statement read. “In fact, Washington only confirms the famous saying, ‘God, save me from proven friends.’”

Dodik, who has been the subject of several US sanctions packages and was recently put on a UK sanctions list for his disruptive domestic actions, once more blocked a series of Presidency decisions, including refusing to accept the new German ambassador’s diplomatic accreditives, causing another international scandal.

He also filed a motion to relieve the Bosniak member of the Presidency Šefik Džaferović from his post due to Džaferović’s participation in the Ukraine-led Crimea Platform diplomatic initiative on 23 August.

As the country inches closer to general elections scheduled for early October, much of Dodik’s actions can be seen as a way of strengthening his decades-long hold on power in Bosnia by appeasing the Russia- and Putin-lovers among his voters, Banjaluka-based journalist Dragan Bursać told Euronews.

“If we take into account that a vast majority of the population in the RS is, gently put, Russophile or Putinophile, it’s key to demonstrate a clear link between the local leader in Dodik and the big boss Putin, who has the status of a demi-god among some here,” Bursać said.

“So whoever takes a photo with the demi-god, he gets close to becoming one too.”

Dodik will not be running for the state Presidency again, opting instead to run for president of the RS entity. Last Monday, he announced in an interview for the regional television UNA that he is poised to meet with Putin again sometime in September to discuss the Kremlin-backed construction of a gas corridor through the RS.

The Russian government was ready to invest in a pipeline that would bring gas to Banjaluka through Serbia, but when the authorities in the RS applied for a construction permit for a section of the corridor under the Drina river, “[the government in] Sarajevo came and said no out of pure spite”.

“So it’s on hold, and now I have to go and stand in front of Putin and say, ‘I’m terribly sorry, I have to wait some more, we can’t ‘” Dodik said, further explaining that the animosity of the rest of the country — Bosniaks in particular — towards Russia is preventing him from conducting business with the Kremlin.

“I think that’s their goal in Sarajevo. They must be laughing while watching this [interview] and saying, ‘Look how we managed to mess with Dodik and Putin,’” he pondered.

“But you’ll never stop us. We’ll find a way. We’ll get it done when we become an independent state, and there will be nothing you’ll be able to do about it.”

The date for the new meeting between the two has been set for 20 September, with Dodik planning to travel to Moscow for the tête-à-tête, a Republika Srpska official told the entity news agency SRNA on Thursday.

‘Armata tanks and a brotherly union’

According to Bursać, the race in the entity now completely hinges on capturing the attention and the sentiments of those who strongly relate with Moscow.

In March, about one hundred Bosnian Serb nationalists demonstrated in the country’s second-largest city, Banjaluka, in support of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Participants waved Russian flags and described Russia’s decision to invade its neighbour as a legitimate “battle to liberate [Ukraine’s] subjugated people”.

The gathering in Banjaluka was organised by Bosnian Serb members of the Night Wolves, a local branch of the Russian motorcycle club that staunchly supports the Russian president.

Earlier in August, a bust of Putin was revealed in the town of Milići, some 240 kilometres west of Banjaluka. The “Park of the Greats,” dedicated to Russian historical and cultural figures, also features the busts of Fyodor Dostoyevski and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

“You can find graffitis across Banjaluka that say things like ‘VRS + Ratko Mladić + Putin equals Serb heroes’. The whole city is covered in those tags. Also, Putin’s portraits feature prominently in bars, for example,” Bursać said.

Ratko Mladić, the wartime commander of the VRS or the Army of the RS, was sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in June 2021 to life in prison on ten counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995.

The open and sometimes brazen display of support shown for Putin and his war despite his pariah status elsewhere in Europe has a lot to do with a skewed view of Serbs’ own history, Bursać believes.

“The Russophillia in the RS hinges on the Serb self-promoting myth where Serbs are ‘little Russians’ which has been around for a couple of centuries, despite historically always being left out to dry by the Russian empire, the Soviet Union and then Russia again,” he explained.

“The obsessive link with ‘Mother Russia’ has no basis in reality.”

The government in neighbouring Serbia, led by President Aleksandar Vučić, has insisted on the Balkan country remaining neutral in the war, deciding not to implement any sanctions against Moscow for its aggression against Ukraine.

But unlike Dodik, who openly rejects cooperating with western powers, Vučić has played a careful game of see-saw, stating that he is fully committed to Serbia’s EU path and that the accession process to the bloc remains his top priority in his second-term inaugural speech on 31 May.

Belgrade has also voted in favour of three UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since 24 February.

At the same time, some worry about Moscow and Putin having the open and increasingly vocal support of the more radical parts of Serbian society.

A December 2021 study published by the leading international think tank BiEPAG has shown that a majority of Serbians have a high level of trust in Russia. In addition, some 47% of respondents believed that Belgrade should look to Moscow for its national security, compared to 10.7% who would trust the EU, in second place.

Another poll in May conducted by conservative outlet NSPM has shown that some 84% of their respondents firmly oppose any future Serbian sanctions against the Kremlin.

Since the February invasion, several right-wing nationalist groups have organised a number of pro-Russia and pro-Putin demonstrations in Belgrade, carrying flags of Novorossiya and the Russian empire and banners with the letter Z, which has become synonymous with the war.

While Vučić has repeatedly stated Belgrade is solely interested in peace in the region, the blatant displays of support for Putin’s war in Ukraine next door have also made those who want to see Bosnia split in half feel like their grand designs might have the backing of their likeminded brethren.

“These people imagine their own version of Neverland, a pan-Orthodox utopia, and the Russian aggression in Ukraine makes it seem like their dream is finally underway. And there’s no going back from that,” Bursać concluded.

But despite the ongoing crises and unaddressed fears in Bosnia, life remained seemingly normal.

In mid-August, a techno party gathering thousands on Sarajevo’s main thoroughfare, Titova street, and featuring one of the world’s biggest names in electronic music, Solomun, closed off the largest regional film festival held in the city each year.

Shopping centres and main walkways are replete with people, while cafes and restaurants are brimming with customers even at midday.

Sitting at his cafe, Rajvosa, right off of Titova street, Mehmed Kekić told Euronews that he rarely debates the Russian threat with his guests — or politics, for that matter.

If anything, he feels that Bosnians are prepared for any crisis that might come their way.

“We’ve defeated COVID, we’ll defeat the Russians. The aliens should get ready, they’re next,” Kekić said half-jokingly.

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