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Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 22.

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.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
The president of the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik (left), and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet near Moscow on September 22.

Reality has been hijacked. Facts are twisted. Confusion reigns. Welcome to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A referendum called by the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, over a seemingly innocent question -- whether January 9 should be celebrated as the entity's Statehood Day -- is set to take place on September 25.

Many observers in the Balkans see it as a dress rehearsal for an attempt to secede -- and thus the opening of a Pandora’s box in the region. The Bosnian Constitutional Court has asked Republika Srpska to reconsider the choice of January 9, because it excludes the entity’s non-Serbian population. It is not only an Orthodox holiday but marks the day in 1992 when a renegade Bosnian Serb assembly declared an independent Serbian state in Bosnia. Ignoring that recommendation, Dodik has decided to proceed with the referendum. He confirmed as much in an interview with RFE/RL.

In a video clip aired on Banjaluka TV, a young man named Stefan says that he was born during the war, that his father was killed, and that all he has left is his faith, his Orthodox holiday, and his homeland. The message is emotionally charged, but it strays from reality. In the clip, Stefan's Serbian father is a victim and a freedom fighter. Yet by far the biggest victims of the war were Bosnian Muslims. It appears that no one ever told Stefan who was responsible for wartime concentration camps, who engaged in systematic ethnic cleansing -- including the genocide at Srebrenica -- or which side took UN peacekeepers hostage.

However, Dodik's referendum was pushed out of the headlines this week by an interview given by Sefer Halilovic, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Army, that was being portrayed by some as the biggest threat to peace in Bosnia.

Talking to TV 1 in Sarajevo, Halilovic said the subversion of the Dayton peace accords -- for instance, through Dodik’s defiance of the Constitutional Court or his insistence on holding a referendum over January 9 -- was dangerous. Halilovic even suggested that Republika Srpska could disappear as a result (its existence being guaranteed by Dayton).

“We are not threatening anyone, but we will not allow anyone to break off a piece of Bosnia without trouble.... I am asking for them to think carefully [about what they are doing]. Milosevic is dead, the Yugoslav Army is no more, along with its thousands of tanks, armored vehicles.... Serbia cannot help Republika Srpska. We will not allow anyone to break up this country."

Sefer Halilovic is running a fringe political party that has a single deputy in the Bosnian parliament, yet his incendiary comments have made news..
Sefer Halilovic is running a fringe political party that has a single deputy in the Bosnian parliament, yet his incendiary comments have made news..

Halilovic is a retired general. He is running a fringe political party that has a single deputy in the Bosnian parliament. Even the Belgrade-based newspaper Blic admits that he is marginal character. Yet the Serbian foreign minister has chosen to make waves over Halilovic’s irresponsible comments, while Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was considering cutting short his visit to the United States.

Bosnian professor Enver Kazaz explained the storm over Halilovic’s comments in an interview:

“Dodik provoked Sefer Halilovic and exposed his political immaturity, which was then seized on by militant voices in Serbia as if the Bosnian Army was already massing along the border. In short, the current political establishment in the entire region is not to up to the job [and] is incapable of providing a vision of peace or contributing to the institutionalization of democratic practices.”

Vucic told B92 on September 22 that he had been receiving private messages from (unnamed) world leaders urging him "not to react to the rhetoric coming out of Bosnia-Herzegovina." Vucic, speaking from New York, claimed that he had been told to ignore Halilovic, who is "irrelevant" and "a madman," but that he remained worried by the lack of public condemnation of Halilovic’s comments and "because there are more than a few who share his attitude."

Vucic added that Serbia "respects Bosnia-Herzegovina’s integrity" but will "not allow Republika Srpska to be destroyed."

It is not clear how his comments might have been meant to be construed any differently -- or as any less as a veiled threat -- than Halilovic’s controversial remarks about protecting the integrity of Bosnia.

Meanwhile, Emir Kusturica, the controversial film director, wants to be sure that all the dirty laundry of the 1990s has been aired. In an interview with Srna, published by Nezavisne Novine, he said that the Bosniak member of the tripartite Bosnian Presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, is following in the footsteps of his father, wartime Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic.

Bakir Izetbegovic
Bakir Izetbegovic

Kusturica claims that Alija Izetbegovic’s rejection of the "Cutileiro plan" -- the Lisbon agreement that proposed the division of Bosnia into ethnic (Muslim, Serbian, and Croat) districts -- allegedly on the urging of U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmermann, was responsible for the outbreak of the war in Bosnia in 1992. "The same is true now. Everything that Bakir Izetbegovic is doing is aimed at destroying peace in Bosnia." He also called on all Serbs to come out to vote on September 25.

Half-truths are sometimes worse than lies.

In April 1992, Izetbegovic rejected the plan to divide the country along ethnic lines, but the war was started by the Bosnian Serb leadership -- including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic -- backed by the Yugoslav Army. What Kusturica did not say is that once Izetbegovic returned from another round of peace negotiations in Lisbon, on May 2, 1992, he was kidnapped by the Yugoslav Army at Sarajevo airport, the city was sealed off, and a full-scale war was unleashed by the Serb-led Yugoslav Army.

Kusturica, a Sarajevo native, was once celebrated as an award-winning film director. When he openly declared his support for Milosevic during the war in Bosnia, a former screenwriter, Abdulah Sidran, was under siege in Sarajevo. When people approached him to get his reaction, he stayed silent. When news arrived that Kusturica had been given a villa on the Montenegrin coast by Milosevic, Sidran was once again asked about it. His response was pithy: “The man is crazy. He gained a house and lost a city.”

Arguably, the storm over Halilovic's statement is entirely artificial. The September 25 referendum, on the other hand, is very real -- and potentially a real threat to Bosnia’s survival and to regional peace. Since the outcome is not in doubt, the choice of January 9 as Republika Srpska’s official Statehood Day -- a red-letter day in the Serbian nationalist calendar -- will increase the gap between Serbs and non-Serbs in Bosnia.

Also real is the fear deliberately being sown by politicians -- fear that could stalk voters in the local elections on October 2.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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