Argument

Putin Is Building a Bosnian Paramilitary Force

With elections approaching in October, Russia has ramped up its support for Bosnia's Serb separatists.

Bosnian Serb supporters of leftist parties hold up images of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally in support of the government in Banja Luka on May 14, 2016. (Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images)
Bosnian Serb supporters of leftist parties hold up images of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally in support of the government in Banja Luka on May 14, 2016. (Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images)

Anyone who doubts that Russia will seek to fill in any political vacuum in Europe left by the United States need only look to the Balkans. In recent years, as Washington’s attention has wandered from the region, Russia has zeroed in on the opportunities for influence operations.

The main target isn’t Croatia, which is an member of the European Union and NATO; nor Serbia, which has a long history of ties to Moscow. The Kremlin is focused instead on Bosnia and Herzegovina, a Western-aligned country that is nevertheless vulnerable to destabilization, especially with elections approaching in October.

Bosnia is administratively divided between two decentralized entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has a mostly Bosniak and Croat population, and Republika Srpska, which has a Serb majority. Russia’s policy consists in encouraging the separatist instincts of the latter.

This includes efforts as seemingly innocuous as supporting the Republika Srpska population’s Serbian Orthodox religion. Next month, in the regional capital of Banja Luka, a cornerstone will be laid for a new Russian-sponsored Orthodox church in honor of Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who came to Serbia’s defense in World War I. Upon completion, the church will regularly feature religious services by both Serbian and Russian priests in their respective Orthodox denominations.

The most intensive cooperation between Bosnian Serbs and Russia, however, is channeled through the Republika Srpska security forces. The region is not permitted to have its own military, under the terms of the Dayton agreement that ended the Bosnian war in 1995. But it does maintain its own police force—one that has an increasingly close relationship with Moscow.

In 2016, during an official visit by a Russian delegation to Banja Luka, talks focused on establishing a partnership between Republika Srpska and Russian police on matters including intelligence collection, counterterrorism, and combatting cybercrime. Republika Srpska also agreed to host Russian police trainers and to send members of Serb special units to Moscow for training. Since then, Russian intelligence officers (former members of the Federal Security Service) often give lectures and teach courses in the Republika Srpska police academy and at the University of Banja Luka’s faculty of security studies, which serves as the regional police’s policy planning department.

The faculty members do not hide their pro-Russian views. Predrag Ceranic, the faculty dean, is a former intelligence officer and author of a book, Who Gets Bothered by Little Russians­, referring to Serbs as “little Russians.” In an interview with Foreign Policy, Ceranic declared: “Developments in the Middle East and a competition between Russia and the West there find its reflection in the Balkans. Both the Middle East and Balkans are strategically important for great powers and the war in the Middle East influences the rivalry between them in Balkans.”

The exchange of military knowledge and socializing among security personnel also flows in the other direction, from Republika Srpska to Russia. Former RS military officers also often travel and work in Russia. For example, former Capt. Tihomir Ivanovic from Banja Luka is currently a lecturer at one of Moscow’s state military academies. (His son also studies theology and diplomacy in Moscow and is involved in Orthodox Church’s activities in Republika Srpska, Serbia, and Russia.)

Meanwhile, under the pretext of counterterrorism, Republika Srpska has recently been strengthening its police force in ways that resemble outright militarization, sometimes with the help of Russia. For example, the RS Ministry of Internal Affairs bought 2,500 long-barreled weapons this year from a Zastava Arms, a Serbian manufacturer in Kragujevac. According to Reuf Bajrovic, Bosnia’s former economy minister, that’s 10 times as many high-powered rifles ordered by the national police forces in Sarajevo. The Republika Srpska authorities are also opening a new $4 million dollar training center at the site of a former army barracks in Zaluzani, outside Banja Luka. Russia has already committed to provide Serb forces with anti-terrorism training at the center,which will serve as the headquarters for new anti-terrorist units, logistics units, and a department to combat organized crime. These additions will put the Serbian police closer on par with Bosnia’s national security forces.

There is also ongoing discussion in Republika Srpska of creating of a Russian “humanitarian” center similar to one already established in the Serbian city of Nis. Officially, its purpose is to help the local government with natural disasters such as floods and fires. But the center in Nis has been suspected of serving as a Russian intelligence center and an unofficial military base—not least because Russia has requested diplomatic immunity for its personnel stationed there.

Russia and Republika Srpska have also cultivated close ties between their respective war veterans’ organizations. (At the offices of the veterans’ association in Banja Luka, the ribbon of St. George, a symbol of Russian separatists in Ukraine and their supporters, is prominently on display.) Such organizations have been involved in recruiting locals to travel to eastern Ukraine and Syria as foreign fighters with Russian private military companies such as the Wagner Group. The Banja Luka war veterans’ office is also affiliated with a Serbian paramilitary organization known as Serbian Honor, whose leaders have been trained in Russia.

Russia still doesn’t enjoy much soft power in Bosnia, or even in Republika Srpska. Russia’s main cultural institution in Banja Luka, the Russkiy Mir Foundation, “does not have sufficient financial resources to work properly,” said Ljilja Petrovic Zecic, the director of the National and University Library of Republika Srpska, which hosts the center. “Their activities are very limited, and people show little interest in Russian culture, with an exception of Russian movies broadcasted on RS TV.” She then added. “Goethe Institute [also located the facility] and other Western cultural centers have more money and are much more popular.”

Nevertheless, Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, has plenty of incentive to play a pro-Russia card in the approaching October elections, even as many of his own advisors are openly pro-Western. Dodik has a talent for stoking the grievances of Bosnian Serbs, who still feel stigmatized because of a lack of recognition for their community’s casualties in the 1990s wars and their relative international marginalization today. (Officials in Sarajevo do bear some blame for ostracizing their Republika Srpska counterparts.) With rising discontent about his government among Bosnian Serbs, Dodik’s best chance to remain in office will be present himself as a guarantor of the region’s continued autonomy against the alleged ambitions of the central government “elites” in Sarajevo and their backers in the West.

Tarring his opponents in Republika Srpska as agents of the West, while himself publicly associating with Russia—which increasingly portrays itself as an opponent of the West’s geopolitical aggression, past and present—offers the most direct way for Dodik to achieve his immediate political goals. Dodik has repeatedly praised Russians as the closest friends of Bosnian Serbs, and invited them to play a larger role in the region. Russia, for its part, has insisted on maintaining Bosnia’s increasingly dysfunctional political status quo, precisely because it guarantees the autonomy of Bosnian Serbs. It’s not clear whether Dodik’s ultimate goal is to create an independent Bosnian Serb state, even if that may be the result of his cynical stoking of his constituents’ fears.

For now, the political and economic connections between Moscow and Banja Luka are still mostly symbolic. The most formal cooperation between the governments occurs at Russian-facilitated meetings of unrecognized states (other participants include Abkhazia and South Ossetia), but no one seems to take the gathering very seriously. (Republika Srpska has discussed buying wine from Abkhazia, but never struck an official deal.)

But the links will continue to deepen if Dodik, as expected, wins the October presidential election. Russia’s gradual strategy is unlikely to include any sudden moves. But it may eventually tempt Sarajevo, or its Western backers, to intervene to prevent a decisive break between Banja Luka and the rest of Bosnia—in which case, an escalation by Russia may become inevitable and unpredictable. Alternatively, the West may eventually discover that it has become too late to intervene at all.

Vera Mironova is a visiting scholar in the Harvard University economics department.
Bogdan Zawadewicz is a research associate at the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg, Germany.

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