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Why Did Russia Veto Recognizing Srebrenica as a Genocide?

Given the extreme low that Russia’s relations with the West have fallen to, denying recognition of Srebrenica as a genocide is a small move in the wider standoff.

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Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution on Wednesday that would have condemned the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as a genocide ahead of its 20th anniversary on July 11. Given that the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serbs has already been widely condemned as a genocide, both by international tribunals and countries around the world, the diplomatic maneuver may seem inconsequential. But in the context of Moscow’s foreign-policy goals for the Balkans, the move is consistent with a long history of Russian engagement in the region.

For starters, Serbia is an important ally that allows Moscow to maintain influence in the Balkans, which the Kremlin views as an area of strategic and economic interest. Moscow and Belgrade have ties dating back to the Russian Empire, and as Slavic, Orthodox Christian nations, they share strong ethnic and cultural ties.

In recent years and under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, the Kremlin has moved to have a more substantial footprint in the Balkans to push back on what it sees as Western power — embodied by the European Union and NATO — encroaching on its borders and eroding its influence.

“Moscow wants to make it clear that the Balkans won’t be part of mainstream Europe,” Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and the executive director of the McCain Institute, told Foreign Policy. Putin has been actively courting Belgrade in recent years, decrying Kosovo’s independence and serving as the guest of honor as Serbia commemorated Soviet troops liberating the country from Nazi occupation. Meanwhile, Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, inked a deal in 2013 to supply natural gas to Serbia. Military ties between the two countries have also strengthened, with Russian paratroopers carrying out drills in Serbia last year.

But the Kremlin’s main tool has been appealing to strained Serb nationalism. During the debate at the Security Council, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said adopting the resolution “would be counter-productive,” and cited fears of renewed ethnic violence, that it “would lead to greater tension in the region,” a line echoed earlier by Belgrade. Serbia, which does not have a seat on the council, asked Russia to block the resolution according to the AFP. After the resolution’s veto, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said that it was a “great day” for his country. “Russia’s veto is all about winning over the Serbian public and its leadership” Volker said. “Putin wants to display an image of himself standing up for Russian identity around the world. It’s great optics at home.”

During the 1992 to 1995 war in Bosnia that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia was ostracized for its role in the brutal conflict. Srebrenica, a Muslim town besieged by Bosnian Serb forces with support from Belgrade, came to embody the conflict’s violence. Serb troops led by General Ratko Mladic — who has been on trial in The Hague on genocide charges since 2012 — overran the enclave as they tried to wrest away territory from Bosnian Muslims and Croats to form their own state. Thousands fled to the mountains, but the rest of the population sought protection from Dutch U.N. peacekeepers stationed at the suburb of Potocari. But the outnumbered and ineffective peacekeepers could only watch as Serb troops occupied their base and separated men and boys from women, and loaded the males on buses and trucks. The Serb forces slaughtered some 8,000 men and boys. More than 7,000 bodies of victims have been found, but 1,000 are still missing.

Serbia has acknowledged that a “grave crime” took place at Srebrenica and even adopted a declaration condemning the massacre in 2010. As it has sought closer ties with the EU, it has also arrested high profile military leaders involved in the massacre. But Serbian leaders have also charged previous attempts to highlight the Srebrenica genocide to undermine their nation’s reputation and impede reconciliation efforts in the Balkans.

Srebrenica became the mobilizing event for international intervention, opening the door to more militarily robust peacekeeping missions from the U.N. and NATO. In August 1995, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin harshly criticized intensified NATO air strikes on Bosnian Serb military targets. But an economically weakened post-Soviet Russia was also careful to not burn bridges with the West and even agreed to provide troops to the NATO-sponsored peacekeeping force.

Under Putin, and especially since the Ukraine crisis one year ago, Russia has aimed to roll back Western influence in the Balkans, according to Richard Kauzlarich, a former U.S. ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Moscow believes the current order in the Balkans was formed at a time when Russia was down and the West took advantage of that weakness.”

Given the extreme low that Russia’s relations with the West have fallen to, denying recognition of Srebrenica as a genocide is a small move in the wider standoff between Moscow and its adversaries in Brussels and Washington. Apart from driving a wedge between Serbia’s pro-European and nationalist camps, the rhetoric is also a boost for nationalists in the Republic of Srpska, the self-governing Bosnian Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “As long as Bosnia-Herzegovina remains divided and dysfunctional, Western institutions will not be able to continue advancing within the Balkans,” said Kauzlarich.

VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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