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Mon. December 05, 2022
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Tensions in Bosnia and the Balkans
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On June 23rd, 2022, prior to the European Council, leaders of the EU and the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia) convened for a summit. The main subject was EU enlargement in light of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Among the participants, reactions to the "special military operation" varied widely, ranging from condemnation of the aggression and alignment with European sanctions, as in the case of North Macedonia, to a vaguer condemnation without the application of sanctions (Serbia), to unconditional support of the invasion (in the case of Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency). Support for Dodik's position, however, is far from unanimous in Sarajevo; on the contrary, tensions are sky-high in the Balkan country, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine could further escalate the situation, with many wondering whether the war might trigger a domino effect in one of the most unstable regions of the Old Continent, the Balkans.

The situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is easily provoked, has been escalating over many months, as Dodik himself has championed increasingly secessionist policies with the aim of creating parallel institutions for Republika Srpska, Bosnia's Serb entity. Sanctioned by the United Kingdom and the United States, Dodik succeeded in getting the parliament in Banja Luka (the capital of the Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina) to approve the creation of an autonomous drug agency and the establishment of a parallel judicial system. As a result of these decisions, in November, the UN High Representative in Bosnia forecast the possibility of a Bosnian confederation breakup. Dodik's separatist agenda, as he himself announced, is now expected to encompass the development of a parallel tax system before moving on to create autonomous armed forces divided from the Bosnian National Army. These actions, if finalized, would create a de facto separation between Republika Srpska and the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, openly calling into question the country's constitutional architecture defined in the 1995 Dayton Accords, which put an end to the war.

However, Dodik is far from the only one who is unhappy with the current structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina; over the past few months, Bosnia’s Croatian component and the government in Zagreb have also contributed to exacerbating tensions, by stating that the electoral law of the Croat-Muslim Federation, the other entity of  Bosnia penalizes the Croatian part of the population. In April, the Croat Nationalist Party of Bosnia (HDZ) submitted a bill that would require every citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina to declare at the registry office that he or she belongs to one of the constituent peoples (Serb, Croat or Bosnian) or to a national minority, with the aim of ensuring electoral representation that reflects the country's ethnic makeup. Dragan Covic, leader of the HDZ, also tried to involve the EU in the dispute, sending a letter to European institutions in which he denounced attempts to reduce Croats to the status of a "national minority."

The Bosnian stage is thus more fragmented than ever, rocked by Croat national demands and Serb centrifugal pushes. In this tense climate, the European Union has so far failed to contribute to de-escalation in Bosnia, partly because of obstruction by Hungary. Budapest is taking an increasingly assertive stance in the Balkan area, taking advantage of the general instability: the closeness between Dodik and Viktor Orbán is well known, as the sympathy of both towards Vladimir Putin. To highlight its growing involvement in the Balkans, the Magyar government has recently granted political asylum to the former Macedonian prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, who was sentenced to seven years in prison at home for abuse of power. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policies is Hungarian, guaranteeing Budapest no small amount of influence over EU policies in the Balkans. Although Hungary seems well equipped to extend its influence in the Balkan region, the Magyar position carries less weight than the influence of those who have an interest in destabilizing the entire area between the Carpathians and the Adriatic, namely Moscow. Indeed, Dodik's biggest sponsor is the Kremlin, even more so than Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who is trying to protract an impossible balance between Russia and Europe lately by sending signals of openness toward the West. Given the many similarities that exist between the situation in the separatist republics of the Donbas and Kosovo, Belgrade finds it very difficult to be enthusiastic about the Russian manoeuvres in Ukraine.

Serbia can play a key role in the future of the Balkans; support for Russian aggression in Ukraine, justified by “defence” of the "Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics", would be to support a Kosovo-like situation, and Belgrade cannot afford to appear inconsistent on the issue of secessionism by changing its position on the indivisibility of states. For the same reason, Serbia continues to show caution with regard to the Republika Srpska's moves in Bosnia, caution that has, however, pushed Banja Luka even closer to Moscow's orbit. For Belgrade, supporting Russia is becoming more and more difficult, and maintaining these ties could clip the wings of Serbian development prospects. In recent months, Belgrade has sent very clear signals about its preparedness to distance itself from a Russia that is poorer, more isolated, more subject to Chinese influence, and that has less and less to offer (both to its citizens and to Serbia's "Slavic brothers").

As if moving slowly along a narrow ridge, Serbia seems to be seeking to detach itself from an increasingly unattractive Russia, in defiance of the idea of "Slavic brotherhood" and the support shown by the Russians over the NATO bombing of Belgrade, a classic rhetorical argument employed by Russian diplomats. With these factors in mind, Moscow's irritation at Lavrov's failed trip to Belgrade on June 6 is even more understandable; the joint decision by neighbouring countries (EU and non-EU: Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Montenegro) to close their airspace to the Russian foreign minister’s plane, impeding his arrival in Belgrade, shows not only a surprising coordination of Balkan countries in foreign policy-quite a rare occurrence-but it also shows how much influence Moscow has lost in the region. It is therefore logical for the Kremlin to turn to the most ethnically and institutionally fragile state in the Balkans-Bosnia-to raise tensions and regain power. Sarajevo, with its confederate structure and crystallized ethnic divisions following the 1995 peace agreements, seems to be perfectly positioned to wreak havoc not only among Serbs, Croats and Bosnians but also among Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims and, by extension, among all countries in the region.

If the Kremlin sees tensions in the Balkans and Bosnia as an opportunity to increase the level of instability on the European continent, over-involvement could have the opposite effect, ending by alienating neutral or friendly countries. This was the case of Montenegro, where, in 2016, Moscow is presumed to have supported the failed coup in the small Adriatic country. This resulted in Podgorica veering firmly to the West and joining NATO the following year.

As for the Bosnian situation, there are fears of increasing Russian support for the Republika Srpska causing the nation to slide more and more toward a situation similar to that of Transnistria, Abkhazia or South Ossetia: de facto independence of a part of the country through exploitation of ethnic tensions and the arrival of Russian weaponry and military into the area. However, given the poor performance of the Russian military in Ukraine and the priority of that theater for Moscow, it is highly unlikely that Russia would have the will or the resources to envisage similar movements in Banja Luka.

On the European side, French President Macron's proposal for a "European political confederation" was rather coldly received in the Balkans, where it was seen as an endless antechamber to accession to the Union. In addition, the favor with which Ukraine and Moldova saw their way to candidate status paved left Balkan countries irritated with EU leaders. This is also why, prior to the joint Franco-Italian-German visit to Kyiv, Macron and Scholz made stops in the region (with the Elysée occupant visiting Romania and Moldova, while the Chancellor visited Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria). Although the German Chancellor was criticized by Vucic over sanctions on Russia, Germany's support for European integration of the countries in the region is certainly more sincere than that of the French. Paris seems to be following a different approach towards the region by leaning on only a few key countries: Serbia, with which it shares deep historical ties (back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries France focused on Belgrade in an anti-Austrian and anti-German function); Bulgaria, who it has defended in the identity dispute with North Macedonia (which is creating great turmoil both in Sofia and Skopje); and, finally, Greece, which France supports against Turkey, through public statements and via the sale of warships and Rafale to Athens. Conversely, Germany can claim historical, cultural, and geographic ties that link it more strongly to the region: over the centuries, the Danube Basin was instrumental in creating a connection between the German world and the Balkans (a living example of this connection is the Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, a descendant of the Siebenbürger Sachsen, the Saxons of Transylvania). The German approach thus rests on more solid foundations, granting Berlin the ability to champion primarily economic policies to integrate the region into its value chain, as it has done with other Central European countries.

Emphasized above is the great autonomy that Hungary allows itself to maneuver in the Balkans, an autonomy also due to the lack of agreement among the major European powers (particularly France and Germany, but also Italy) on how to organize the region. The local countries, lacking the power to consensually stabilize the region, are subject to the influence of those nations which hold interest in the Balkans, interests which are historically strategic; after all, in 1914, it was from here that the fuse that ignited the continent was lit. 

Lastly, when it comes to the Balkans and Bosnia in particular, one cannot forget role played by Turkey. Ankara is currently recovering a more marginal position, relying on the political capital accumulated over the years by leveraging soft power in the region; it has essentially been exploiting the religious vector. This move has proved to be particularly effective and popular with the Bosniacs, the Muslim population of Bosnia. Retracing Ottoman trails, Turkey has exerted considerable effort to extend its influence in the Balkans, a common move for any power that has dominated the Straits, in order to secure solid anchorages on both sides of the Hellespont. Istanbul has for now maintained a more low-key position, but its influence in Bosnia should not be underestimated.

Russia's aggression against Ukraine is bound to result in numerous shockwaves across the political landscape of the European continent: instability in the Balkan region and, more specifically, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, presents a context ready to ignite at the slightest touch amid competing French, German, Russian and Turkish influences. While the war may provide the pretext for an acceleration of tension in the Balkan area, there is no guarantee that a balance cannot be achieved, or at least that hostilities will progress into conflict. With regard to the Bosnian scenario, Dodik's separatist pushes seem to have come to a halt after the UN High Representative intervened by blocking a law which would have transferred some Bosnian state property to the Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Constitutional Court suspended the law creating an autonomous drug agency. In any case, the situation in Bosnia will have to continue to be monitored as Sarajevo is set to experience a prolonged period of heat until next October, when national elections will be held.

Stuffer Francesco is a geopolitical analyst at the Spykman International Center for Geopolitical Analysis. He is a graduate of the Paris School of International Affairs – Master in International Governance and Diplomacy, his centers of interest are the Post-Soviet Space and the Balkans.

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