Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, is only 300 kilometers from the Serbian capital. Moscow is another 2,000 kilometers away. Yet when Milorad Dodik sought support for his controversial referendum on a Statehood Day for the Bosnian-Serb entity he heads, it was the Kremlin he turned to first.
The date proposed for the holiday, January 9, is laden with significance, not only because it is an Orthodox holiday -- St. Stephen's Day -- but also because it marks the declaration in 1992 of an independent Bosnian Serb state, which led to a three-year ethnic war. From outside Republika Srpska, the celebration of Statehood Day -- especially on that date -- is seen as excluding the Muslim and Catholic Croat minorities who reside there at the risk of stoking ethnic tension.
Yet when the ballots from the September 25 referendum were tallied, the overwhelming majority -- 99.8 percent -- voted in favor of January 9 for the holiday.
The dust has not yet settled, but it seems clear that Dodik's only objective in defying a court order from Sarajevo against holding the referendum was to provoke conflict and affirm his nationalist credentials. For his pains, he has been summoned to the Bosnia-Herzegovina capital for a hearing with the state prosecutor's office.
Sarajevo was not alone. EU officials, Western diplomats, the Office of the High Representative, and many others had urged Dodik to abandon his plans for a plebiscite that had been ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court. For support, he turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin, traveling to Moscow on September 22. According to Russian sources, the meeting was focused on "economic cooperation, the security situation in the Balkans, and the fight against terrorism."
"As far as the referendum is concerned, there was no special discussion, except to conclude that it is the people's right [to vote]," Dodik told Russian media after the meeting.
The photo op with Putin would have to suffice. But given the ambiguous statements by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic -- who shied away from supporting the referendum after meeting with Serbian leaders from Bosnia on September 1, while saying they did "not want to influence in any way" the political positions of politicians in Republika Srpska -- the mere image of backing from Moscow spoke volumes.
The flirtation suits Putin, as well, but only so long as it's a no-strings-attached relationship, according to Erik Gordi, a Balkan expert from University College London. In a tweet following the meeting, Gordi took a simple lesson from the Putin-Dodik meeting:
That assessment may well be true, but it's still enough to embolden Dodik in his defiance of the country's laws and the international community -- and thus to maintain a sense of crisis in Bosnia.
In suggesting why the Russian president would deign to meet with the head of a Bosnian entity, Serbian sociologist Vesna Pesic told RFE/RL in Belgrade that "by showing his influence over Dodik, and over the Serbian government, Putin is in fact negotiating with his real enemies -- the West -- and not with us."
Amid the ongoing war in Syria and other battlegrounds around the world, it has almost escaped notice that Putin is also challenging the West in the Balkans. Yet Russian soft power is being deployed all over the region with growing effectiveness. The Balkans may not be the next in line for a Russian invasion, or a show of military force, but it's still an important arena for Russia to assert its influence and standing -- as Putin sees it, making up for ground lost during the post-Soviet hangover.
When the former Yugoslavia surprised the world with its bloody breakup in the early 1990s, Russia was dealing with the collapse of Soviet Union and did not play a major role in resolving the Balkan crises. However, it gave shelter to the Yugoslav Army's chief of staff, Veljko Kadijevic, among others. He was granted Russian citizenship and passed away in 2014. The widow of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Mirjana Markovic, is a permanent resident in Moscow. A number of Serbian war profiteers who enriched themselves in the 1990s thanks to their connections to Serbia's "first family" are now running successful businesses out of Moscow.
To make up for not being there to help its Orthodox Slavic brethren -- the Serbs -- in the early 1990s, Russia is now wholeheartedly engaged in rewriting the history of the destruction of Yugoslavia, and Serbia's role in it. It was Russia that vetoed the resolution proposed by Great Britain on the Srebrenica genocide. Russian media are actively contributing to the revisionist project with efforts to rehabilitate Milosevic, who died in custody in The Hague in 2006. Contrary to the evidence gathered by The Hague tribunal in the course of the unfinished trial, Milosevic is now being painted as a peacemaker and as someone who wanted only to save Yugoslavia, rather than the man ultimately responsible for the worst atrocities on European soil since World War II.
All of this is intended to undermine Western efforts to bring peace and stability to the region and to reassert Russian influence and control.
Russia has been running a sophisticated and successful campaign to influence Balkan politics for years, explains Jaroslav Wisniewski in The Washington Post, adding that the Western Balkans are symbolically important to Putin's foreign policy.
"Many in Russia viewed the fall of Yugoslavia as an example of humiliation where the West ignored Moscow's views," Wisniewski writes.
But there are deeper, historical reasons why many Russians feel that being a great power implies playing a role in the Balkans.
The Russian strategy consists of projecting an image of a great power and ally but "with little substance behind it in investments or donations to the nations involved," Wisniewski says.
Yet, it is working.
A study published by the Belgrade-based Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies claims that Russia is deploying its soft power to destabilize the Balkan region, to stop the processes of democratization and EU accession, and to undermine the regional states' cooperation with NATO.
Russian soft power in Serbia and the Western Balkans has multiple objectives, according to this study. The primary goal is the replacement of democracy with Russian-style authoritarian populism. The secondary goal is to weaken support for European integration and to discredit the very concept of EU expansion.
To achieve these goals in Bosnia, Putin needs nothing other than Dodik in Banja Luka -- and totally confused political leaders in Sarajevo.