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  • Jakob Reid

Is Bosnia Putin's Next Playground?

By Jakob Reid

Eastern Europe has become a popular budget holiday destination in recent years. This has been a welcome boost to the economies of the region after Covid-19 struck in 2020. However, I believe there is one possible tourist, by the name of Vladimir Putin, who I doubt would receive a warm welcome from the nation that gave the world Ivo Andrić and Edin Džeko – I am of course talking about Bosnia.


Bosnia is a country that has been in political flux since its civil war ended almost thirty years ago, making it a prime candidate for Russian President Vladimir Putin to exact his tightening grip on the former Eastern Bloc.

I believe that Vladimir Putin not only seeks to capitalise on the fragmented nature of the Bosnian political system, but also seeks a union of nationalist politicians to create chaos in the region.


Bosnia’s political system is arguably one of the most complicated political systems in the world. A tripartite presidency, consisting of one member from each constituent nation, a Serb, Croat, and Bosniak, presents obvious complications. On top of this, is the federative nature of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is made up of Bosnia, and the equally autonomous entity of Republika Srpska. Within this system are three competing interests, many Bosnians seek greater central control for the federation, many Serbs seek greater autonomy for Republika Srpska, and many Croats seek the creation of a whole new entity to accompany the two, already deeply split ones currently in existence.


But why Bosnia? I would argue it is less Bosnia, and more so the individuals at play. The two figures central to all of this are the President of Republika Srpska and the President of Serbia. 


Milorad Dodik, the current President of Republika Srpska, is an interesting character. First seen by the West following the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the civil war, he appeared as the man capable of moving the federation past the horrors of sectarian violence. Since then, however, he has gone on to be sanctioned multiple times and accused of supporting secession attempts from Bosnia. These attempts have centred around the steps taken by the entity’s parliament to withdraw from the wider Bosnian state in tax affairs, defence, and judicial matters


Amid this upheaval, it has emerged in recent months that Vladimir Putin is a strong supporter and financial backer of Republika Srpska's efforts to leave Bosnia. Why though? Russia only contributes 3% to Bosnia’s FDI, compared to the EU’s combined 64%. I would argue, that despite no clear economic incentive, Putin’s support for Dodik is merely intended to destabilise the region and encourage more division within the European Union. He has already had some success in this regard, with his apparent EU ally Viktor Orbán conveniently visiting Dodik, only days after the sectarian measures were passed. 


“For every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims”. Those were the words of the now Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. The man currently trying to take Serbia into the EU has, on the surface, had almost the opposite story to Dodik. He urged Russia to veto any resolution that would call the Srebrenica massacre a genocide. Vučić comes across to me as similar to any other politician of his background: deeply entangled in the past whilst simultaneously trying to negotiate with the present. In his case, Vučić had sought to maintain good relations with Russia whilst also seeking closer ties with the EU. You would think one who seeks closer ties with the EU would have dropped Russia after the invasion of Ukraine two years ago. But not Vučić.


Instead, he has done the opposite, refusing to impose sanctions on Russia. How does this link to Bosnia? Well, the past is usually a good indicator of the present. Despite his proclaimed short enlightenment to the possible benefits of closer ties with the EU, Vučić has returned to where he began, being accused of promoting the demands for a “Greater Serbia”, which was arguably a central cause of the Bosnian Civil War. One thing we can see from Vučić, is that he has played an instrumental role in enabling Putin’s Russia to avoid criticism for actions in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, could Bosnia be next?


The one thing that underlines both Dodik and Vučić is they are both enablers walking a tightrope. Both claim on the face of it to want greater cooperation and unity, but actions speak louder than words. The fact both leaders have allowed Russian embassies to promote their narrative about the war in Ukraine suggests a closer relationship between the three leaders. 


Many Bosnians have lived in fear ever since the breakout of the civil war in 1992, and the current events in Ukraine have likely only added to this trepidation. Despite Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, being over thirteen hundred miles away from Moscow, it is in my opinion, the fear of neighbouring Serbia getting too close to Russia, and the leadership of Republika Srpska, that will likely result in Bosnia making a return to the international spotlight. Vladimir Putin seeks not just imperialism, but a coalition of like-minded ideologues, to enact chaos on the European peninsula, starting, I believe, in the Balkans.


Image: Wikimedia Commons


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