Argument

One of Bosnia’s New Presidents May Want to Break the Country Apart

Dodik campaigned on independence for Republika Srpska. Will Putin help him get his way?

Milorad Dodik delivers a speech in the northern Bosnian town of Doboj on Oct. 7. (Elvis Barukcic AFP/Getty Images)
Milorad Dodik delivers a speech in the northern Bosnian town of Doboj on Oct. 7. (Elvis Barukcic AFP/Getty Images)

After elections on Sunday, the bombastic pro-Kremlin nationalist Milorad Dodik has claimed the Serb seat in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency. The fiery Dodik has regularly mused about independence for Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb-dominated statelet. His apparent commitment to that cause is worrying; independence would most likely usher in the collapse of Bosnia, and it could spur the country and the wider region into the biggest conflict there since the bloody wars of the 1990s. Also alarming is the fact that Russia is Dodik’s main international backer in the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin, it seems, could be egging Dodik on in an attempt to foment unrest on Europe’s borders.

In some ways, Russia’s pull in Republika Srpska is easily visible. A visitor can take a 15-minute walk north from the center of the capital, Banja Luka, to a dirt field across the street from a soccer stadium. In a few years, this 70,000-square-foot plot of land will be home to a Russian cultural center and a five-domed church. The design of the new church is based on an ancient cathedral that stood in the Kremlin until it was destroyed after the Bolshevik Revolution.

“This is a symbol of our fight for freedom,” Dodik proclaimed at the center’s consecration in September, explicitly linking Russia to his separatist ambitions. At least for now, though, such rhetoric doesn’t quite match up to reality. Below towering cranes, only the cathedral’s basic foundation is visible, including the red steps that will eventually lead to a front door that is currently marked with a large Orthodox cross. If anything, the windswept construction site is a symbol that the Kremlin’s role in Bosnia isn’t necessarily what Moscow, or even its most hawkish Western opponents, has built it up to be.

Commentators such as the former U.S. Defense Department official Michael Carpenter and the Bosnian academic and politician Emir Suljagic have argued that the Kremlin’s ultimate goal is to break Bosnia up into two, if not three, pieces: Republika Srpska, which could join Serbia or remain independent; a rump Bosnian Muslim state; and a possible third Croat entity. As the Bosnian politician Reuf Bajrovic told the Guardian in January, “the Russians have decided to use their leverage in the Balkans to get the outcome they want,” which is “the end of the Dayton accords and the creation of a Serb statelet.”

Such an outcome might seem to be in Moscow’s interest. It would produce a small, heavily militarized client state beholden to Russia right on Europe’s borders. Dodik himself encourages such interpretations by frequently linking independence and Russia, as he did during the cultural center’s consecration. Meanwhile, reports that Dodik’s police forces are stockpiling arms and that Russian-trained mercenaries are forming a pro-Dodik paramilitary group have only added fuel to the fire.

But not everyone is convinced that a breakup of Bosnia—and a possible war between Serbs and Bosniaks, not to mention Bosnian Croats—is actually Russia’s endgame. “An escalation isn’t necessarily in Russia’s interests,” said Dimitar Bechev, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. After all, Bechev says, if Russia is too linked to Dodik’s cause, it would likely have to enter the fray itself. Already bogged down with military adventures in Syria and Ukraine, Russia doesn’t need to insert itself into any new intractable conflicts. Besides, Bechev adds, Bosnia’s current status suits Russia quite nicely. It is a divided and weak state that isn’t about to join NATO anytime soon.

To be sure, Moscow does wield influence in Bosnia. It has long been the largest foreign investor in Republika Srpska, which, along with the rest of the country, is dependent on Russian gas. (Russia also owns the country’s two oil refineries.) Meanwhile, the European Council on Foreign Relations has described the Russian state-run news service Sputnik, whose Serbian-language service is based in Belgrade, as having “a disproportionate influence” on the Republika Srpska public. And in a poll conducted this year, a plurality of Bosnian Serbs—41 percent—said Russia was their greatest ally, compared with just 1 percent of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats.

Russia is also able to wield power by tapping into rife corruption and cronyism in Bosnia. (According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, it is one of the most corrupt countries in Europe.) For example, Moscow has taken control of key companies in strategic sectors, such as oil and gas, said Tena Prelec, a researcher at the London School of Economics. That’s good for Russia, which is guaranteed friendly business and political partners in Bosnia. It is also good for Bosnian elites, Prelec explained. They point to Russian funding to claim that their country is awash in foreign investment while also lining their own pockets.

Given Russia’s influence across all of Bosnia, news stories about thugs and limited gun sales are almost beside the point. More than an independent Republika Srpska, with all the downsides that would entail, “what the Kremlin wants is an intermediary,” said Alida Vracic, a political scientist and executive director of Populari, a Bosnia-based think tank. That is, it wants a client that can bring to the fore “doubts and distrust in the EU, NATO, and the West.” Dodik and his party, Vracic said, serve just that purpose, as long as their rhetoric about independence remains just that.

For now, observers such as Srecko Latal, a Bosnian analyst and journalist, don’t think that Dodik’s ascension will necessarily bring with it a significant increase in Russian influence. Rather, he said, only a souring of relations between Russia and its more important ally, Serbia, would reorient the Kremlin toward Dodik and Bosnia’s Serbs. Even those who are a bit more bullish on Russia, such as Bechev, say that if Russia does step up its presence in Republika Srpska, the change may be marginal. “Russia has a stronger voice in the presidency now,” Bechev argued, “but I don’t see a huge difference.”

That’s why, Prelec said, “overemphasizing the Russian threat in the Balkans is counterproductive.” More than anything, “it takes away the attention from structural problems that desperately need to be tackled,” including rule of law and corruption.

That may be true, but it is still worth being wary. If Russia changes its mind, it could do real damage in Bosnia. For example, in 2014, Russia abstained from a vote in the U.N. Security Council on extending the mandate of the European Union’s peacekeeping force in Bosnia. The abstention had no practical impact, other than to remind all the other parties that Russia could just as easily use its veto. The Kremlin, observers such as Latal warn, will always have a few tricks up its sleeves in Bosnia. “Their spoiler capacity is greater,” he said, “but so far they haven’t even used half of it.”

Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist who covers Central and Eastern Europe.

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