Putin’s next target? Bosnia grapples with secessionism following invasion of Ukraine

By Jamie Welham

For seasoned observers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia’s malign and dormant influence in the Balkan state has always been there to see.

Now, as the world continues to grapple with the geopolitical shockwaves of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western minds must turn to how to avoid the invasion leading to a conflagration of tensions and secessionism in the formerly war-torn country. 

Julie Ward, a former MEP and member of the EU’s Stabilisation and Association Council between the EU and Bosnia, told Redaction Report about meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a trip marking the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. 

“We flew into Tuzla and drove to Srebrenica,” Ward said. “The route went along the River Drina, along the border with Serbia. On every lamppost we passed we saw a poster of Putin.”

Before Putin launched his barbaric assault on Ukraine, Bosnia had the unfortunate distinction of being the centre of the largest war on European soil since the Second World War. Following the death Josip Tito and the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a brutal war was waged between the rival ethnic factions of Bosnian-Serbs, Bosnian-Croats and Bosniaks. 

Aided and abetted by Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, the Bosnian-Serbs carried out a full-scale genocide against the Bosniaks, with over 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed alone in Srebrenica. It is estimated that over 100,000 people lost their lives in the years of conflict between 1992 and 1995. 

Since the signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995, Bosnia has tiptoed among a tightrope of uneasy peace. The agreement partitioned the state of Bosnia into two separate federal entities, the largely Serb-populated Republika Srpska and mainly Croat-Bosniak-populated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dayton also stipulated Bosnia would have three Presidents at once: a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat.

A source from the Bosnia and Herzegovina Government, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained how the optimism in 1995 that Dayton would usher in a democratic future for Bosnians based on reconciliation and consensus has proven to be misguided. 

The source said: “There was a belief that with enough Western support and reforms that the country would be able to stand on its own and independently move towards the EU and NATO, following the model of former socialist countries. 

“Political elites were given so much power however through the power sharing agreement that they were able to turn it upside down and perpetuate a frozen conflict to stay in power, in turn offering very little to their citizens.”

Now, Milorad Dodik, the Serb Member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is seeking to use war in Ukraine to align himself with Putin whilst also accelerate his secessionist agenda. 

Dodik is the only European leader to have formally visited Putin in Russia since the invasion begun, meeting the Russian President at an economic forum in St Peterburg in June. 

Speaking to reporters, Dodik confirmed that he would not partake in Western sanctions against Russia, stating: “We believe that the West is just trying to interfere everywhere. We have been living like that for over twenty years, so the situation remains the same with us.” 

The source from the Bosnian Government was unequivocal in their analysis of Dodik’s visit, adding: “Obviously, he feels that it is the only source of international power behind him. There is also speculation that the Russians have something on him to keep him in grip. 

“It is a really sad act for the representative of Bosnian-Serbs, who are leaving the country in their droves. They are not going to Russia, but are going West.”

At home, Dodik continues to use his position to obstruct and undermine Bosnia’s functioning. He led efforts to sever Bosnian-Serb ties with the centralised judicial and tax systems, and continues to heavily flirt with establishing a separate Bosnian-Serb army. 

The Bosnian Government source explained that Russia has everything to gain and nothing to lose in encouraging Dodik’s separatist ambitions: “Russia has been trying to challenge the west wherever they can, at low cost for themselves and at high cost for western powers. Aligning with Dodik also allows the Kremlin to maintain its sphere of influence within the Balkan region.” 

In return, Russian disinformation about the war has been allowed to seep into Bosnian mainstream media. Following the invasion, Bosnian-Serb tabloids published frontpages purporting that the war was instigated by Ukraine and the West. The source admitted that Bosnia is fertile ground for such statements, explaining that it is commonly believed that the break-up of Yugoslavia was a US-led conspiracy. 

The Bosnian Government source expressed belief that secessionism in Bosnia would have increased dramatically if the Russians had been able to successfully take Kyiv in February.

Minds are now crystalised as to how to avoid Russian chauvinism and consequent instability from spilling over into neighbouring regions. 

“This is no longer an academic exercise, but the real thing” the source said. “Imagine if you have another simultaneous crisis in the Balkans.” 

Bosnia has been recognised by the EU as a “potential candidate country” for accession since 2003. Andi Hoxhaj, a native Bosnian and a Professor of International Law at the University of Warwick believes that accelerating this process may quell instability in the country. 

Hoxhaj said: “If Bosnia is able to get candidate status by the end of the year, then maybe some things will change. If not, then both Russia and Serbia will try to cause more instability over the next 12 months.

“I partially blame the EU for the current situation. They should have given candidacy status to Bosnia a long time ago. We saw how quickly they were able to give the status to Ukraine, so why can’t they do the same for Bosnia?

“Bosnia is smaller and easier to manage in terms of population size. If this were to happen, slowly you would begin to see some positive change.”

The Bosnian Government source expressed scepticism in the belief that granting Bosnia EU candidate status would improve the situation: “This could help alleviate things but it ultimately it wouldn’t change much. Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro all have candidate status and still suffer problems.”

Instead, the source was clear that only an enforced NATO presence in Bosnia would quell divisions and halt Bosnian-Serb separatism. 

“A few months back NATO temporarily sent an additional 500 troops into the country. All of a sudden there was a dramatic change in the narrative, a clear message and a symbolic show of force, which worked at least for a while” he said. 

The substantial challenges facing Bosnia and Herzegovina have been brought to a head and in some ways accelerating through the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Bosnian Government source remained resolutely determined that the country would realise its dreams in the future. 

“Bosnians want to have good, prosperous, normal lives. They want steady jobs, good healthcare, and good schools for their children. They see that the whole region around us is in NATO and the EU, and they see where we are heading.”

Featured Image: Pixabay

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