Why NATO Should Worry About the Balkans
Moscow is creating a pretext for further meddling in Bosnia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, in Belgrade, Serbia, on Jan. 17, 2019.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought flashbacks to millions of Bosniak Muslims who suffered immensely under the regime of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and his notorious proxy genocidaires, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
Many of us Bosniaks fully identify with Ukrainians, including myself.
As a journalist, I am glued to my laptop and cellphone for most of the day, keeping track of news reports from Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities that are under relentless Russian bombardment. It wasn’t too long ago that my city, Sarajevo, was bombarded in a similar fashion.
I was 8 years old when Bosnian Serbs encircled Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1992, and I vividly remember hearing the very same propaganda preceding the attack that I hear now coming from the Kremlin about Ukraine. In fact, I came to realize that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ideology and justification for invading Ukraine are nothing but a pale copy of Milosevic’s “Greater Serbia” project from the early 1990s, which envisioned occupying and annexing at least half of Bosnia.
The ongoing war in Ukraine and the recent flare-ups in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia, made me realize how frozen conflicts can morph into full-scale wars literally overnight. Those of us living in Bosnia and Herzegovina are all too aware that our frozen conflict is a powder keg waiting to be ignited and that only a potent NATO military presence can ensure long-term peace and stability. The similarities between Russian and Serbian irredentism are astonishing.
Back in the 1990s, Serbian nationalists parroted the claim that Bosnia historically belonged to Serbia, that we Bosniak Muslims were in fact Christian Serbs who were forcefully converted to Islam under the Ottomans, and that Bosnia—as an independent and sovereign country—would not survive without Serbian tutelage. So closely are Bosniak Muslims able to identify with Ukrainians that monetary donations have been collected and prayers held at Bosnian mosques for Ukraine’s defense.
However, there is only so much they can do.
Along with Serbia and Belarus, Bosnia remains one of the few European countries that has not introduced any sanctions against Russia. But unlike Serbia and Belarus, which are ideologically linked to Russia, Bosnia is split on the issue along ethnic lines, a reflection of the country’s internal political discord.
Foreign-policy decisions in Bosnia are made by the consensus of all three members of the country’s rotating tripartite presidency. One of the members of the country’s presidency is Milorad Dodik, an ultranationalist Serb leader who has gained notoriety for his blatantly Islamophobic and saber-rattling rhetoric as well as his absolute hatred and disregard for the country that he represents.
A staunch ally of both Putin and Serbia’s nationalist strongman President Aleksandar Vucic, Dodik is in a position to veto Bosnia’s foreign policy, including preventing the recognition of Kosovo’s independence and stalling Bosnia’s NATO accession. With Moscow’s and Belgrade’s backing, Dodik and his cronies have been advocating for the independence of their Republika Srpska, which comprises 49 percent of Bosnia’s territory.
Pro-Russian sentiment is not limited to Dodik and his political cronies, though. Support for Russia is rife among Bosnian Serbs and those in Serbia proper. Recently, citizens in the Muslim-majority Bosnian city of Tuzla gathered to express support for Ukraine while a counter-gathering in support of Russia was organized with the pro-Putin Night Wolves motorcycle gang in Banja Luka, which is in Republika Srpska.
Dodik’s political and economic patronage networks have deep roots in Serbia and Russia, which both support, if not directly orchestrate, his moves. Vucic, a staunch ally of Putin, has been conspicuously treading a fine line since the war in Ukraine began, going as far as to open his doors to Ukrainian refugees but falling short of sanctioning Moscow or closing Serbia’s airspace to Russian planes.
However, pro-government media outlets have been hailing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and lionizing Putin and his military. According to a recent poll, 83 percent of Serbians consider Russia a “friend.”
Moscow has amped up its diplomatic interference, reaching out to its Slavic and Orthodox brethren to exploit and exacerbate existing political fault lines. Following Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s ambassador in Sarajevo, Igor Kalabukhov, has become much more brazen. He recently threatened Bosnia with Ukraine’s scenario should Bosnia proceed to join NATO, saying: “If [Bosnia and Herzegovina] decides to be a member of any alliance, that is an internal matter. Our response is a different matter. Ukraine’s example shows what to expect. Should there be any threat, we will respond.” This echoed Kalabukhov’s threats last year when his embassy said, “In the case of practical rapprochement of Bosnia and Herzegovina and NATO, our country will have to react to this hostile act.”
The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo responded, saying the Russian ambassador’s threats to Bosnia and Herzegovina were “dangerous, irresponsible, and unacceptable,” and that “No third party has a say in security arrangements between NATO and sovereign countries.”
To be clear, Russia does not view Bosnia and Herzegovina or any other small Western Balkan state as a national security threat. However, forestalling their NATO and European Union’s accession is a strategic goal within Russia’s broader foreign-policy objectives. Bosnia is the easiest target, as existing deep-rooted ethnic problems can be exacerbated to divert the EU’s and NATO’s attention from Moscow’s more ambitious designs, such as those in Ukraine. Moscow also feels entitled to adequately reciprocate at NATO for infringing upon what the Kremlin sees as its zones of influence (the Baltics, Georgia, and Ukraine).
And a pretext for Moscow’s further meddling in Bosnia is slowly but steadily being constructed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently alleged that mercenaries from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania were being recruited and transferred to Ukraine’s Donbas region to fight against Moscow-backed rebels, something regional governments vehemently denied.
Conflict-generating rhetoric is emanating from the political leaders of Bosnia’s third major ethnic group as well, Bosnian Croats, and their political party, the Croatian Democratic Union, which sees the unstable atmosphere as an opportunity to pursue its own electoral reforms designed to further entrench the current ethnonationalist political system at the expense of liberal and civic political parties.
Among my friends and colleagues, who are by and large political scientists, lawyers, and journalists, talk of war had already returned. Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Bosnians have been stockpiling on flour, cooking oil, and sugar—a reflexive action most likely triggered by video footage of Ukraine’s devastation.
Realizing that the war in Ukraine may have a potential spillover effect on Bosnia, the European Union’s peacekeeping force in the country deployed another 500 troops as a precautionary measure. However, this is only temporary. The peacekeepers’ mandate could be scuppered by Russia’s veto power at the United Nations Security Council this November, as it is renewed on an annual basis.
Western diplomats have threatened sanctions against Bosnian Serb secessionists, but within the European Union itself there is a noticeable and disconcerting lack of consensus. The right-wing, illiberal streak personified in the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Slovenia’s Janez Jansa overtly support Dodik.
A lackluster economy, endemic corruption, failed reforms, and an uninterested international community are now taking their toll on the country’s future. There is widespread consensus among both local and international observers that Bosnia is currently facing its most serious postwar crisis. It is no longer just a political crisis, but a rapidly deteriorating security crisis.
A closer look at NATO’s member states map reveals that Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo are the only remaining Balkan states that have not yet joined the alliance. These are the exact states where Moscow has profound interests and powerful proxies that can act on its behalf.
While NATO is strengthening its eastern flank and reinforcing allies, it must keep a close eye on the Balkans, where its soft underbelly lies. NATO should beef up its military presence in Bosnia, for which it derives its peacekeeping legitimacy directly from the Dayton Peace agreement, and invest more resources to secure its most exposed partner states, Bosnia and Kosovo, against Serbian and Russian interference. A more visible and potent NATO military presence will send the right message to Putin’s proxies.
If Bosnian Serbs declare independence, an unrecognized Abkhazia-like Russian puppet statelet will be formed on the borders of two NATO member states, Croatia and Montenegro.
It will then no longer be Bosnia’s problem but a major headache for NATO.
(c) 2022, Foreign Policy