Between Russia and the west

Between Russia and the west

Dysfunctionality in Serbia and Bosnia reflects the larger economic conflict between Russia and the west.

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By Carole Hodge

Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a new conflict zone between Russia and the west, according to Kommersant, a leading Russian business daily. This assessment follows a series of developments  which, separately taken, might have rung few alarm bells. Yet, in combination, and backed by an intensive propaganda campaign from Belgrade and Banja Luka, they risk shattering the fragile peace which has held Bosnia together for the last two decades.

The current tensions first arose when Russia, at Serbia’s request, vetoed a UK draft Security Council resolution marking the Srebrenica genocide. Since genocide had already been established in two international courts, the veto in itself had little significance beyond causing extra friction between the Bosnian Federation and Serbia. But Security Council resolutions are rarely vetoed, and Russia’s stance in this case may intimate a wider agenda in the region.

The next event occurred at the twentieth anniversary commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide at Potocari, when the Serbian prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, was targeted with stones, shoes and bottles. There were no injuries of any note, and the incident involved only a handful of the 50,000 or so attending the commemoration, but Vucic grasped the opportunity to respond in what the Serbian media termed ‘statesmanlike’ fashion. ‘Victim of the hour‘, Vucic indicated that he was ready to draw a line under the episode and reach out a hand of reconciliation, while at the same time branding his assailants as fools and hooligans, and blaming the Bosnian authorities for poor security arrangements.

Ties with Russia

Days after the Srebrenica commemoration, an article appeared in Nezavisne Novine, a leading Republika Srpska daily, announcing that Serbia, no longer weak, was now poised to become leader in the region, and even a mediator on the international stage, at a time of increasing dissension between the western powers and Russia. Vucic, spearheading Serbia’s ‘new’ foreign policy, describes it as working towards EU integration (essential for Serbia’s economic recovery), while maintaining traditional friendship ties with Russia.

Meanwhile, a referendum in Republika Srpska, an initiative launched by RS President Milorad Dodik in July, is now set to take place on 15 November. This would amount to a de facto exit from the Bosnian justice system, a move vigorously opposed by European and US leaders as a prelude to the possible disintegration of Bosnia, and regional destabilisation. The initiative was supported by Russia, however, presumably for the same reason, and to extend its influence in the region. Russia’s support prompted Dodik to approach heads of state and diplomats throughout the region and internationally in a lengthy letter, justifying his intention. It is not the first time Dodik has threatened a referendum, but what has changed is the new energy with which he is pursuing his goals.

Dodik, of course, cannot get very far without Serbia’s backing and, in particular, that of its most powerful politician, Aleksandar Vucic. Vucic has consistently declared Serbia’s support for RS, while making serious overtures to European leaders in recent weeks, and, at the same time, crafting a new image of himself, bordering on a personality cult. On the surface, Vucic appears conciliatory towards Bosnia, even to the point of inviting the Bosnian presidents to Belgrade in a highly-publicised visit to demonstrate the superiority of Serbia’s security arrangements. The fact that he skipped protocol by issuing the invitations himself, rather than through Tomislav Nikolic, the Serbian president, is telling, but not the first instance of Vucic attempting to outshine his president.

Conversion or ploy?

So has Vucic undergone a Damascene conversion? Or is it all just a cynical ploy to gain support and confidence within and beyond the frontiers of Serbia, whilst continuing to pursue the old ‘Greater Serbia’ policy tactically, through words rather than weapons? Whatever the case, it seems to be working in Serbia, where his personal rating has soared since the Srebrenica episode. This may, of course, not be entirely unconnected to the increasing control of the media by Vucic and his close associates – one of several concerns about the deteriorating situation in Serbia raised by US Congress members in a letter to Vice-President Joseph Biden on the eve of Vucic’s recent visit to Washington.

Until quite recently, Vucic was little known outside Serbia, other than for his infamous remark recorded on video just three weeks before the Srebrenica genocide, when he pledged before the Serbian Assembly that for every Serb killed, one hundred Muslims would die. During the Bosnian war, Vucic was spokesperson for Vojislav Seselj’s Radical Party (of which Nikolic was also a leading member), known for its brutal campaigns aimed at creating a ‘Greater Serbia’, involving the conquest of large chunks of Bosnia and Croatia through murder and the mass expulsion of civilians.

Vucic hastens to stress that his position has now changed. He even admits that ‘some’ Serbs were responsible for the Srebrenica massacres. He is not prepared, however, to acknowledge his own role, or that of Serbia, in the Bosnian war. Nor does he concede that the Srebrenica massacres constituted genocide. This casual dismissal of international judgments in itself casts doubt on Vucic’s credentials as a stabilising force in the region, let alone an international interlocutor.

At times, Vucic appears to talk with a forked tongue. He likes to present himself as a modern democratic leader, yet opines that Serbia should return to the policies of Milos Obrenovic. Does he mean the autocratic nineteenth-century leader who ruled with a rod of steel, refusing to share power, and became one of the richest men in poverty-stricken Serbia? Vucic offers a hand of friendship to Bosnia (and to the Bosniak Presidency member, Bakir Izetbegovic, in particular) whilst at the same time peddling the myth through the government-controlled media that the attack at Potocari was an organised assassination attempt, and that the security group responsible for the failure to protect him is directly linked to Izetbegovic. Given the lax security, if the intent had been to kill, more effective weaponry than stones would surely have been used. More serious still is the depiction of Bosnia as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, and a base for ISIS, an allegation likely to gain traction in European capitals already traumatised by the spread of ISIS in Europe, even though Bosnia is no more a centre of extremist Islamic activity than other European states.

Vucic also did not see fit to withdraw the two international arrest warrants issued by Serbia for Naser Oric and Ramush Haradinaj, which led to their arrests in Switzerland and Slovenia, respectively (mirroring the failed extradition warrants against Ejup Ganic and Jovan Divjak in 2010 and 2011). Both Oric and Haradinaj had been acquitted of all charges at the International Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, and Oric’s arrest did little to improve Belgrade’s relations with Sarajevo, whilst Haradinaj’s detention led to tensions between Slovenia and Kosovo. Serbia’s ongoing vigorous opposition to Kosovo joining UNESCO has merely exacerbated tensions between Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians, belying Vucic’s allegedly flexible approach to Kosovo independence. In short, beyond the rhetoric, there appears little of substance to Vucic’s claim to support stabilisation in the region.

Improving relations

If, despite appearances, Vucic is serious about wanting to improve relations with Sarajevo, he would be advised to start by publicly recognising that genocide took place in Srebrenica, and by declaring Sarajevo as Belgrade’s interlocutor, and not Banja Luka as at present. He would also need to acknowledge Serbia’s responsibility in the Bosnian war, not least as a step towards assisting his own people to come to terms with established historical facts in relation to the 1990s wars orchestrated from Belgrade, at which point they may see the irony in their media giving precedence to a skirmish over the genocide of 8,000 men and boys.

All this would, of course, amount to a sea change, which is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Bosnian dysfunctionality

Meanwhile, Russia has been gradually moving towards closer alignment in the Balkans, to diminish the influence of the European Union. Natural gas supplies, infrastructure projects and various investments over recent years have reinforced Russia’s traditional links with Serbia, Montenegro and RS. Serbia is an important Russian ally and will be even more so if it secures EU membership. Bosnia, on the other hand, will serve Russia’s purpose better if unstable, an aspiration shared by Dodik whose power would be severely curtailed in a Bosnia integrated into the EU. Dodik, consequently, has been nurturing close ties with the Russian leadership, supporting Crimea’s referendum on joining Russia, while Russia will use its relationship with RS to foment instability in Bosnia, and thereby be better placed to compete with European powers for influence in the wider arena.

A certain degree of complacency over the Balkans has developed in the west in recent years. There are no easy options. Serbia, under the premiership of the increasingly powerful Aleksandar Vucic, is still deeply engulfed in revisionism and denial over the 1990s wars, as recent events demonstrate, and, if admitted into the EU in its current political configuration, would be likely to play a divisive role in Bosnia and beyond.

In the lead up to the twentieth anniversary of the Dayton Agreement in which Milosevic played a major role, and which laid the foundations for long-term ethnic division in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is an opportunity to revisit the Agreement, with a view to abolishing the two-entity system which is the main (albeit not the only) source of Bosnia’s dysfunctionality. It is not written in stone and, as it has played out in practice, contravenes international human rights law. This move would pave the way to an ethnically-integrated and more economically and politically stable Bosnia, which citizens in both entities would welcome if accompanied by sufficient international commitment and the financial resources to carry it through. In other words, what most Bosnians, whatever their ethnic origin, need most is political stability and the prospect of a more secure economic future.

Russia would be unlikely to intervene to obstruct the process, as it has already indicated that any initiative needs to come from RS or Serbia. The main opposition to a revision of Dayton would come from Banja Luka and Belgrade and, in the absence of firm international backing, would probably not get very far.

It is not an easy option, but the alternatives could be a lot worse.

Carole Hodge is a Balkans specialist and author of Britain and the Balkans, (Routledge, 2006, 2010), and other academic publications and journals. Former Research Fellow, and Head of Research and Study at the South East European Research Unit at Glasgow University, she is currently writing a book on the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague (due for publication by Routledge in 2015).

This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here


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