Officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina responded defiantly on March 19 to Russia's threat this week to "react" if NATO and Bosnia achieve "practical rapprochement," while the transatlantic military alliance warned against "unacceptable" meddling by third parties interested in maintaining "spheres of influence."
A warning from Moscow's embassy in Sarajevo sounded this week as that Balkan state continues reform efforts aimed at furthering cooperation with NATO.
The Croat member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Zeljko Komsic, accused Moscow of a "twisted threat" in a game of political brinksmanship over Bosnia's fate.
"Political speech that abounds in twisted threats is certainly not acceptable to NATO members, nor to us in Bosnia-Herzegovina," Komsic said.
He called it "a geopolitical game that Russia is playing to stop the expansion of NATO in Europe."
The main party among Bosnian Muslims, the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, called Russia's statement “another [case of] inappropriate meddling” in Bosnia's affairs.
"In the case of practical rapprochement of Bosnia-Herzegovina and NATO, our country will have to react to this hostile act," the Russian Embassy said on March 18.
It called NATO's mission a "fight against Russia" and suggested the alliance hoped to press Bosnia to take a side in the "military-political confrontation."
An executive arm of Bosnia's government, the Council of Ministers, last month ordered the creation of a national Commission for Cooperation with NATO.
Formed this month, the commission should prioritize efforts arising from Bosnia's pledges with respect to NATO and its national reform plan.
Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia, a Russian ally, are the only former Yugoslav republics not in NATO.
“Every country has the sovereign right to choose its own security arrangements," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told RFE/RL's Balkan Service in a statement on March 19. "Whether countries decide to cooperate with NATO -- either through partnerships or as full members of the alliance -- is up to each individual applicant and the 30 allies. No third party has the right to intervene or veto such a process. Any threats in this respect are unacceptable."
Lungescu added: "The time of spheres of influence is over."
National support is high for NATO membership, but there is significant opposition within the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska part of the country.
One of the early requirements of NATO'S Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Bosnia is the transfer of registration of all military bases to the central government's authority, including those within Republika Srpska.
Just this week, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik said ethnic Serbs favor abolishing the Office of High Representative (OHR) for Bosnia-Herzegovina that helps run the country and holding a referendum on the status of Republika Srpska.
Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic cited a worrying change in Russia's views on Bosnia's decision-making.
"Until now, the official position of the Russian Federation was that it would respect the independent decisions of Bosnia-Herzegovina's institutions when it comes to the NATO path, and now the Russian authorities are showing an open intention to limit Bosnia-Herzegovina's sovereignty, contrary to international law," Turkovic said.