Deny Moscow a new front in Bosnia

Kurt Bassuener

The West needs a strategy to prevent Russia stoking the separatist aspirations of the leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina ethnic Serbs.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared for the preordained results of the stacked referendum in Crimea last weekend (16 March), his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, met Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, one of two sub-state entities that emerged from Bosnia’s war and a leader who has long fomented ethnic separatism. Although the official readout from the meeting was anodyne, the meeting and its timing only fed speculation in Bosnia that something more sinister might be afoot. As one diplomat remarked to me, “Putin will support Dodik’s moves, as his main goal is to foment instability throughout Europe.”

Dodik has long insisted that the state of Bosnia is doomed, and that the Republika Srpska should have the right to self-determination. He began spinning this line soon after becoming the entity’s prime minister in 2006, citing the precedent of Montenegro’s independence referendum. He rarely misses a chance to refer to impending or possible independence referenda in Scotland and Catalonia, so it is hardly out of character or surprising that he has now embraced the illegal Crimean referendum, especially since it was engineered by his political idol, Putin. Dodik has openly modelled his development of a ‘vertical of power’ structure on Putin’s operating system in Russia.

But that has begun to backfire. Violent demonstrations in early February by Bosnians angry at the lack of accountability, rampant corruption and general privation visited upon them have put the entire Bosnian political elite on edge. These were particularly widespread in Bosnia’s other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose principal communities are Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats.But these sentiments hold sway state-wide. In Republika Srpska (RS), Dodik’s concentrated power has enabled him to engage in widespread and blatant intimidation of potential popular opponents, visibly manifest in heavier police patrols to deter gatherings. Even as he claims to be defending the RS from conspiracies, whether foreign or domestic, he has also attempted to tarnish the reputations of protesting Serb war veterans who, unlike him, actually fought for the RS.

Dodik reportedly sought credits in Moscow, like those offered to Viktor Yanukovych before he was ousted as Ukraine’s president, so as to be able to avoid relatively mild loan conditions set by the International Monetary Fund and, correspondingly, drive the whole state into further dysfunction. His own economic woes and fears of being toppled in October elections – or even earlier should he not be able to pay the bills – are already driving greater nationalist rhetoric and paranoid behaviour, such as moves to constrain foreign funding of NGOs – just as in Russia. He clearly hopes Russia will support his actions to undermine the Bosnian state.

As the international community’s former high representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, said on 18 March in Sarajevo: “We must act to close this new salient decisively.” Luckily, a united West has full capability to do just that. What has been lacking is the will to employ it.

As has been the case with European and Western responses to Ukraine, the weakest link has been Germany. In Bosnia, this has been manifest in resistance to a long-overdue European Union and Western policy review on how to use their broad array of tools and instruments more effectively. In contrast to its strong advocacy of financial conditionality within the eurozone, Berlin advocates a soft-touch in Bosnia: pacification through throwing more money at the country’s entrenched kleptocrats. This mollifies existing elites, but forestalls progress toward a functioning system. Ukraine demonstrates that such policies lead to greater corruption and less transparency. Yet Germany continues to insist on it.

The group supervising Bosnia’s compliance with the Dayton peace accords that ended Bosnia’s war in 1995, the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), includes Russia. It does not formally operate by consensus; Russian dissent manifested in footnotes to its periodic communiqués attest to that. Yet for too long Moscow has been able to play the opportunistic spoiler because the West has been divided. As recently as February, German diplomats said a recalibration of the international presence in Bosnia was “impossible” because Russia would not accept it. In the wake of Putin’s dangerous adventurism in Ukraine, such objections are no longer tenable. Berlin must now unequivocally get on-side for a new policy.

Two practical manifestations of this would be a decision by all Western members of the PIC to replace the current high representative – a European, Valentin Inzko – with a high-stature American politician and to restructure his or her office to enable it credibly to defend clear red lines: enforcing Dayton and protecting state institutions and processes. The other would be to beef up the EU’s military deterrent force, EUFOR, so that it could cope with forseeable security challenges, including any moves by Republika Srpska toward independence. Western unity on these moves can still outflank Russian opposition.

Russia’s capacity for mischief in Bosnia – while far less than in Ukraine, the Caucasus, or Transnistria – is still substantial. It comes at no cost to Moscow so long as the West is divided. This has long been evident in PIC meetings and Russia’s blatant favouritism toward Republika Srpska as its client entity. But given Putin’s clearly growing appetite for confrontation and aggrandisement, it is best to preclude it in the Balkans completely. A new pan-Western strategy is necessary in its own right in Bosnia. It is long overdue. Developing and adopting one now will make clear that the Balkans are off-limits for Russian opportunistic adventurism. Doing so will also dramatically reduce the ability of Dodik and the rest of Bosnia’s unaccountable elites to evade the reckoning with their citizens that they so richly deserve.