The Kremlin’s interests in Bosnia go back to the Bosnian War and its direct aftermath.
The end of 2022 was marked by a major milestone for Bosnia and Herzegovina. On December 15, the Western Balkan country received European Union candidate status following what could only be described as a very troubled process. For more than a decade, the country has been working towards further European integration within the legal confines of the Dayton Agreement.
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Once Russia launched its war on Ukraine, however, the tremors of the conflict were instantly felt across the Balkans. Bosnia, a country plagued by internal division from the status quo which followed the end of the Yugoslav Wars, proved to be especially vulnerable.
While the long-awaited EU candidate status has brought relief for Bosnians, tensions are far from resolved. On January 8, a day before Republika Srpska’s controversial national holiday, its president, Milorad Dodik, awarded Russian President Vladimir Putin with a medal of honour in absentia. This caused outrage both domestically and among EU policymakers – a blow to the country’s prospects of EU membership.
Bosnia has been slow to adopt Western sanctions on Russia and has yet to end visa-free travel for Russian citizens. The reason for this, however, is not support for Russia but a lack of unanimity among its three constituent peoples – the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.
For decades, the country has been a proving ground for Western and Russian interests. Republika Srpska, one of the two federal entities comprising the country, has long been at the centre of Russia’s goals in the region.
A mutually beneficial relationship
The Kremlin’s interests in Bosnia go back to the Bosnian War and its direct aftermath. The war served to solidify Russia’s bilateral relations with Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia and by extension the Bosnian Serbs – both of whom it supported.
Following Dayton and the creation of the tripartite presidency, Russia has used its friendly relations with the Bosnian Serbs to block crucial reforms needed for the country’s accession to western institutions such as NATO and the EU. The representatives of all three constituent peoples of the federation need to agree before the Presidency can adopt a position, making the country very vulnerable to outside interference.
The relationship is seen as mutually beneficial by Dodik and Putin. Russia has a history of supporting and even encouraging Republika Srpska’s threats to secede from the Federation. It has also questioned International Criminal Tribunal rulings against Bosnian Serb officials. In turn, Dodik and his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats party block the government from aligning with western foreign policies on topics such as sanctions and UN General Assembly resolutions.
Russia’s goals are ultimately to combat Western influence in Bosnia and the relationship is thus purely out of convenience. Both Dodik and Putin benefit from weakening Bosnia’s federal institutions and European involvement in its politics.
The Kremlin and Republika Srpska would benefit from ending European oversight of the country. A common target is the Office of the High Representative and the international judges in Bosnia’s Constitutional Court which the EU relies on to influence reforms. Prior to the war, both the EU and Russia advocated for the closure of the office and the end of international oversight, but the threat of conflict and growing Russian influence has made European leaders reconsider.
The growing divisions between pro- and anti-western forces have pushed Republika Srpska deeper into Russia’s orbit. As the country seeks EU membership, the confrontations will likely increase, putting into question Bosnia’s stability and future.
So, what does this mean for Bosnia’s prospects to enter the EU? On one hand, the structural issues plaguing the Balkan nation are nothing new. The country applied for EU membership in February 2016, but received candidate status only six years later. A major roadblock was the tripartite presidency’s ethnic composition which went against EU minority rights laws.
In its struggle to retain trust among the nations of the Western Balkans, the EU has put aside certain issues for a later date. A much bigger problem, however, are the ethnic tensions which were never resolved following the end of hostilities in the 1990s.
It is no surprise that Dodik chose 8 January to honour Putin. The Day of Republika Srpska celebrated on the following day is highly contentious in Bosnia as it marks the creation of the separatist state and the start of the Bosnian War.
Member of the European Parliament Andrey Kovatchev, who has spent much of his parliamentary career working on the Western Balkans, tells Emerging Europe that “Bosnia and Herzegovina has made progress on their way to the EU, however much more work needs to be done in order to be in line with European values.”
“The constitutional and electoral reforms must be completed and the authorities should fully align with the EU’s common foreign and security policy, particularly the leadership of the Republika Srpska entity,” he adds.
While Bosnia’s leadership has made strides to keep the country on a Western trajectory, Dodik’s close ties with Putin mirror societal opinions regarding Russia. According to the International Republican Institute, only 27 per cent of Bosniaks and 39 per cent of Bosnian Croats have a favourable view of Russia, compared to 89 per cent of Bosnian Serbs – mirroring public perception in Serbia itself.
Kovatchev stressed that consensus will be needed for Bosnia to continue on its European path.
“There needs to be a comprehensive and open dialogue and cooperation within the country as well as consensus on full support to Ukraine in order to raise their Euro-Atlantic profile. These items have been pending for a long time and the political class of Bosnia and Herzegovina is in debt to the citizens who in their large majority have been expecting European integration for many years.”
The internal divisions still present in Bosnian politics will be an uphill battle for the country’s leadership. While EU membership has been the country’s main aspiration for years, the recent granting of candidate status is no longer a major cause for celebration.
The current leadership of Republika Srpska remains the country’s biggest challenge and one the EU cannot afford to ignore. If European leaders wish to see Bosnia join the EU, they will have to ensure open dialogue prevails over violence and Bosnians do not lose hope of their country joining the Union.
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