By Dr. Jahja Muhasilović
Bosnia-Herzegovina is once more at the focus of the world public. Regional and world media are talking about recent Russian actions in the Balkans, which were intensified after Donald Trump's loss in the US presidential elections in November this year. After Joe Biden's victory in the presidential elections, Kremlin is now aware that its space for maneuver will be significantly reduced under the new administration. Kremlin has only one month before Biden's inauguration to play its move before the announced US comeback to the region.
The first sign of the intensified Russian assertiveness regarding Bosnia-Herzegovina was the speech of the Russian ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia only two days after the US presidential elections. Russian ambassador called for the closing of the UN High Representative Office (OHR) in BiH. The Ambassador's call should not be surprising. Kremlin has an identical stance regarding BiH with the Bosnian Serb politician Milorad Dodik, who is serving as the representative of the country's Serbs in the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina. For a long time, Dodik is supporting the abolition of the OHR and calls for the ousting of the foreign judges from the Supreme Court, accusing them of supporting Bosniaks and helping the creation of a "unified BiH." This is not the first time Kremlin openly sided with Dodik. Russia also vetoed the recognition of genocide in Srebrenica back in 2015.
New Russian assertiveness and the Trump-Biden power transition
It is not a secret that Russia would have been more comfortable with Donald Trump's victory. At least rhetorically Democrats are harsher in dealing with Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. Balkans is one of the regions where Washington and Moscow are competing for influence and political control. Bosnia-Herzegovina probably represents the most fragile country in the region. In that sense, it is among countries where the rivalry is manifesting itself the most. Aware of the animosity the new administration has towards the Russian government, Kremlin is using a brief opportunity of the transition period for the maneuver. It appears as a good moment for the destabilization of Bosnia-Herzegovina and to make it harder for the new US administration to fulfill its promises.
The purpose of the recent visit by the Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Lavrov to the region was precisely in that spirit. It was full of diplomatic scandals. He first visited the Serb-majority entity of Republika Srpska (RS) and his ally Milorad Dodik. At the meeting, only flags of Russia and the RS were displayed, without the state flag of BiH. This created an outcry in Sarajevo after which Bosniak and the Croat representative in the Presidency of BiH rejected to meet the Russian Foreign Minister. The rejection shocked not only the region but the whole world. No one expected that such a small and fragile Balkan country could say “niet!” to Russian Foreign Ministers. The reaction probably caught even Lavrov himself with a surprise.
Lavrov continued his regional tour by visiting Zagreb. Unusually the main theme of the visit to Croatia was Bosnia-Herzegovina. Zagreb complained to Lavrov about how it sees “unjust” treatment of Bosnian Croats by Bosniaks and election of Zeljko Komsic “with the Bosniak votes”. For a long time, Zagreb argues that Bosnian Croats are disfranchised because of the “discriminatory election law of BiH”. BiH’s election law has become one of the main foreign policy agendas of the official Zagreb since the 2018 general elections in BiH. In his statements, Lavrov retained a diplomatic tone by repeating Kremlin's support for the Dayton order in BiH. But the recent visit to Zagreb proved one thing which has been talked about for a long time. There is a growing alliance between HDZ and Kremlin. This cooperation includes both the Croatian and Bosnian branch of the party. There is a very strong pro-Russian wing inside both HDZs. Also, HDZ BiH is in an alliance with Dodik’s SNSD Party. The President of HDZ BiH even went to Moscow in February this year to ask for the support of Bosnian Croats. There are now two pro-Russian political parties in BiH, one being SNSD and another HDZ BiH. A very unusual position for the Bosnian Croats whose political leadership likes to portray them as the “carriers of European values in BiH”. But slowly, everything will be said in a moment. Even, thanks to Covic’s influence he enjoys in Zagreb through his strong Herzegovinian connections HDZ BiH even managed to shift Zagreb’s position vis a vis BiH to the Russian camp.
German-Russian High Representative for the dysfunctional BiH
The absence of OHR's reformist character and halt in the Euro-Atlantic integrations for more than a decade has created a vacuum in the region that was filled by countries like Russia, Turkey, Gulf-Arab states, and even China. Since 2009 Austrian Valentin Inzko is the High Representative in BiH. He did not do anything substantial for more than a decade. Bosnian public is not satisfied with what was achieved during his mandate. Apparently, his days are numbered. Recent developments show that counties that are guarantors and the protectors of the Dayton-order have decided to replace Inzko. But the choice that was made seems like a bad omen. Thanks to Berlin’s lobbying efforts, Christian Schmidt is proposed for the position. Schmidt served in different ministerial positions in Germany during the 2010s. More importantly, he supposedly enjoys close ties to HDZ, which further complicates the situation. That Schmidt’s appointment is not a rumor was seen in the fact that one day after his name was disclosed by the local investigative journalists, German Ambassador in BiH Margret Uebber visited the Bosnian Presidency to discuss the appointment.
A High Representative that would be close to HDZ would further strengthen the SNSD-HDZ coalition and would help the forces that are already dissolving the country on the ethnic lines. Interestingly enough, Russia which is also a member of the Peace Implementation Council backed the German proposal. German-Russian collaboration on crucial issues for the region is not surprising as we saw in the recent past consequences of the harmful collaboration of those two countries.
One of the main reasons why Russia managed to survive in the region after 2014 was exactly Germany’s reluctance to act against the Kremlin’s influence. Germany prefers economic relations with Moscow than to step on Russia’s toes. Moreover, Berlin’s strategy was even helpful to the pro-Russian forces in the region. So, let’s take a look at some recent development. It was Germany that was reluctant to follow the United States and other Western allies in sanctioning Russia’s main ally Milorad Dodik. Dodik can continue his degradative policy primarily because of the economic power he enjoys through the monopoly on the energy sector. That monopoly is provided to him by Russia. Unlike many Western states, Germany has not done anything to endanger Dodik's economic independence, which altogether raises a question on Berlin's intentions. There are also strong implications that it is Berlin that is protecting Aleksandar Vucic’s authoritarianism in that country. By sponsoring Vucic-regime Berlin directly provides a ‘lebensraum’ to Dodik’s regime in BiH. Despite dozens of reports of Vucic’s media crackdown and rising crony capitalism, Berlin as the most influential political and economic factor in the region is not willing to pressure Vucic but ignores a blunt reality of democracy in Serbia. On the other hand, the only thing Vucic has to do is to keep representing himself as a ‘born-again Europhile’, whose ideological history is everything but pro-European. Vucic was for the big part of his mature life a radical Russophile and Serbian ultra-nationalism. He is known for his incitements of killing the “Muslims” during the Bosnian war. Suddenly when economic and political interests are at the stake level of democracy and media freedom or being a Russophile does not matter.
It was Germany on whose pressure through the institutions of the EU Balkan states were forced to leave the South Stream gas project. This was a project that was supposed to bring more Russian gas to this part of Europe. Many would conclude that this was a move to limit Russia’s influence by limiting its gas monopoly. But, it is not! Quite contrary! While abolishing South Stream Germany and Russia proceeded with the construction of the Nord Stream, which is a northern route for delivering the Russian gas. By forcing the abolition of the South Stream Germany got the monopoly on European gas imports from Russia. The plan was not to prevent the Russian gas monopoly but to make Germany an energy hub. Washington was the first to react and tried to hit the German-Russian gas alliance by trying to shut down the project. In that strategy Washington heavily relies on Poland by using its geographical position to split the creation of the German-Russian alliance into two pieces. The recent relocation of American troops from Germany to Poland proves exactly that. But, despite the American economic coercion the project is getting close to being finalized. When finished it would Germany an energy hub for almost the whole of Europe.
Even former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder is the manager of the Nord Stream 2 project which is part of the northern gas corridor. He also enjoys a high position in Russian gas giant Rosneft that is under the US sanctions. Schroder was involved in one more German-Russian cooperation that was harmful to BiH. He lobbied against Prevent, one of the largest Bosnian companies and once among the largest suppliers of Volkswagen, in order to sabotage the Bosnian firm's operations in Russia after the firm entered a quarrel with the German automobile giant. Using his close ties to Kremlin he even involved Putin himself in crushing Prevent’s operations in this country.
There are many more arrows that point to the harms of the German-Russian cooperation in the region that are not mentioned here. The cooperation is not only limited to the economic sphere but some political maneuvers show that it is even a geopolitical one. Lobbying for Schmidt’s appointment by both Germany and Russia is the latest in the series. It is primarily Berlin’s interest that keeps autocrats like Vucic and mischievous Russophiles like Dodik in power. And not only in power but inciting their cooperation. While on the micro-level SNSD and HDZ work actively in making Bosnia-Herzegovina more and more a dysfunctional state, an alliance among the two big brother sponsors of those two parties prove how deep the 'invisible alliance' between Berlin and Moscow is.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Balkan Studies Center (BSC).