New challenges ahead: Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU candidate status under Russian influence

03 April 2023 /

9 min

Since the beginning of 2022, the European Union has been facing an increase of threats that marked the end of the year. In this regard, the European geopolitical chessboard is still shaking with some worrying issues still unresolved; the war in Ukraine, the search  for new energy supplies, the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, tensions between over NATO membership, with on one side, Türkiye, and on the other, Sweden and Finland, the new EU enlargement agendas including those of Moldova and Ukraine, and finally, the Western Balkans. The main reason why the latter deserves an analysis lies on  Bosnia and Herzegovina’s new official candidate status – from now on BiH –. Since the Dayton Agreement in 1995, BiH has become the new arena of interests for major international powers such as the EU, United States and Russia.

In the case of Russia, the Bosnian border is more than 1,500 km away. However, relations between both countries raise all sorts of questions. In order to provide an answer, we need to understand Russian foreign policy through the three main axes on which it is articulated; border security, protection of large Russian communities in neighbouring countries, and the creation of a multipolar international order, able to overcome Western leadership by weakening the European Union, NATO, and the US.

The use of natural gas as a political weapon, military threats, or soft power strategies, are instruments commonly employed  in Russian foreign policy to achieve its goals, as it was  already witnessed in other scenarios such as Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014, and Montenegro 2016.

But what role does BiH play in this equation? In the first reading, a country of three million inhabitants, with negligible economic ties and commercial exchanges with Russia, weak existence of military relations and a limited Russian population, does not seem like a country of its interest, based on the key drivers of its foreign policy. However, its strategic location in the Western Balkans, its internal ethnic tensions and unstable institutional design, make BiH an interesting playground for Russia to achieve its overall goal: the destabilisation of  the region and Europe, leading to the consequent weakening of the West. 

The dangerous Bosnian cocktail

Since 1995, citizens born in the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina are said to have Bosnian nationality, even though three ethnic groups of different denominations remain as the main identity drivers within the country; Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks. Based on these differences, BiH is split into two entities; One of similar name called the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, cohabited by both Croats and Bosniaks, and a second one, Republika Srpska, inhabited mostly by Serbs. This design is not eventful at all, as it addresses the nationalist claims of Serbs and Croats, carried over since the Yugoslav Wars in the early nineties. The peculiarity of this division rests on the fact that both entities are provided with a veto power over decisions concerning identity, security, and foreign policy issues. In this regard, BiH’s accession to both the EU and NATO involves a risky movement regarding these three dimensions, hence, the well-known Bosnian Serb leader from Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has noted his resounding rejection towards the military alliance, as well as several contempts to the European club, even right after the country was granted official candidate status by the European Council, the 15th December, 2022. In this regard, although his position towards the EU has been critical but still moderated, his ideas regarding NATO have been overwhelming and in line with Moscow, as we can corroborate by his response to the following statement:

“If Bosnia and Herzegovina decides to be a member of any alliance, that is an internal matter. Our response is a different one. Ukraine’s example shows what we expect. Should there be any threat, we will respond” Igor Kalabukhov, Russian Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina (13/03/2022) 

Internal reactions to this statement were mixed; whereas the general trend on the Croatian and Bosniak side was the condemnation of these words, in regard to the Serbian entity, Dodik stated that Russia had the right to express its opinion if Brussels does so. 

But where does this relationship with Russia come from? What channels of influence is Putin using to interfere in the Bosnian projection towards the EU? Although BiH formally requested its admission in 2016, the Kremlin machinery had been working more intensely since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, coinciding with the withdrawal of the West from BiH, and the beginning of an isolationist and militarised Russian foreign policy.

The first point is understood from the absence of priorities in a context prior to 2014 that has spread over time through overlapping crises, starting by 2008. In this sense, BiH was not a priority for the West, and certainly after years of peace in the country and international arbitration, the geopolitical agenda among the European leaders and policymakers did not contemplate a plan for BiH either. Secondly, the  western withdrawal was seen by Russia as a window of opportunity to extend its influence at a time when its foreign policy was becoming more assertive and independent after an unceasing economic growth that began in the early 2000s.

The way in which Russia would be incisively penetrating BiH would be through three different mechanisms; First, by mixing elements of hard power – military threat, economic strength, energy dependence.- Second, through elements of soft power -historical cultural ties or influence through the Orthodox Church.-  Third, deploying what is known as hybrid threats – disinformation and propaganda campaigns, corruption of the local political elite, espionage and cyber attacks, recruitment and radicalisation through conservative associations, training of small paramilitary groups, etc.- 

The main outcome of all these instruments rests in  the greater polarisation of a society with strong ethnic and identity tensions that will be instrumentalised by pro-Russian leaders such as Dodik, to justify blocking BiH’s rapprochement with the West, serving Moscow’s interests. 

Among the different aforementioned instruments used by Russia, I will briefly explain those referring to hybrid threats, deeply linked to elements of soft power and to a lesser extent, hard power:

Propaganda and disinformation.

This strategy pivots around four axes; First, projecting the image of Russia as the great Slavic and Orthodox brother, with similar traditional values. A powerful, wealth and strong country that has managed to grow regardless of the Western path. Second, the image of the West is displayed  as a threat to the traditional values ​​of BiH. In addition, the EU is projected as a weak international actor, without military weight or strategic capabilities, and NATO as responsible for the murder of Serbs during the bombings in Belgrade. Third, the smearing of some ethnic groups’ image within the country such as Muslims – a half of the country –, who are referred to as underdeveloped cultures that seek to rule the country and impose their values. Finally, the image of neighbouring countries is also attacked, such as Kosovo or Albania which, supported by the West, would be undermining the rights of Serbs. 

Recruitment and radicalisation:

This processes are directly linked to elements of soft power, where extremist organisations and the Orthodox Church exploit the cultural and identity ties of both countries to justify Russian permeation into Bosnian territory and show the damage that the West does to national culture. Under this pretext, several non-state groups – although sponsored by both governments – are radicalising the population. The result is decisive and at a low cost, as we find not only massive anti-EU protests, but also violent counter-demonstrations against those who participate in events supported by pro-EU organisations such as the Gay Pride, or previous LGBT-related events where participants were physically attacked. In addition to this indoctrination presented as a cultural crusade, we also find espionage and military training. Among the main players involved in this radicalisation processes, we find the following names: Balkan Cossacks, the Night Wolves, Russian Humanitarian Centre, Veterans of Republika Srpska or Serbian Honour

Political leaders:

Finally, Russia’s capture of the country’s political elite is a widespread practice employed by the Russian government, encompassing in our case both Croat and Serb leaders. Although in this case I will focus on the latter group, it is important to take into account that there are also tight contacts between Russia and the Croatian entity of the country, even though their effect is minimal and even lacking relevance when compared to the Serbian case, where influence over their leaders has two effects of which Russia benefits from; On the one hand, its impact on the decision-making processes within democratic institutions, blocking all kinds of proposals and movements against Russian interest, such as reforms regarding its candidacy to the EU. On the other hand, the spread of the Russian discourse by this political elite, and specifically by Dodik, who legitimises the war in Ukraine, holds meetings with Putin, and doesn’t support sanctions. 

The power of Milorad Dodik

The reproduction of the Kremlin’s powerful rhetoric might be one of the most worrying aspects of Russian infiltration in the country, as the anti-EU and anti-NATO messages of a politician as influential in the country as Dodik are beginning to permeate Bosnian society, becoming stronger in the absence of pro-EU discourses. An example of this power is seen in the way in which Dodik approaches the different foreign groups that settle in BiH; while he refers to the pro-Russian extremist paramilitary bodies as NGOs, he has proposed considering pro-EU associations as foreign agents, just as occurred recently in Georgia. 

Nevertheless, it is not the first time Dodik mishandles when it comes to the EU. Recently, he had a bitter disagreement with Brussels when in January 2023, Dodik not only celebrated the Statehood Day in Republika Srpska, – a celebration constitutionally banned in BiH – but also announced the same day his intention to officially honour and award Putin for his support for the Serbian people of BiH. These decisions have involved respectively the proposal for sanctions by the European Parliament and the threat from Peter Stano, EU’s spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who reminded Dodik that there is no room in Brussels for this kind of behaviour. 

All these actions taken together, and especially Dodik’s role in the equation, will be decisive for the future of the country. While there is majority support for BiH’s entry into the EU within society, Dodik’s constant reluctance and dismissive talk of “neutrality” when he refers to Brussels, could reverse the trend. Let us bear in mind that in BiH, 43.6% of the population assures that there is an alternative to the EU. Related to this, 89% of Bosnian Serbs in BiH have a positive view of Russia. Another survey showed that 47% believe that the country’s largest trading and military partner is Russia, when actually the EU and NATO still remain the main allies respectively. This distortion of reality in the perceptions of the population proves the harmful power of anti-EU and anti-Western discourses.

Could BiH become a Russian puppet in the West?

In my perspective , the worrying aspect of Russian influence in BiH would not be the military threats per se in case it joins NATO, but rather the kind of reactions by some leaders to such a statement. The key aspect here would therefore be the whitewashing of Russia as the great and strong Slavic example outside the West, and how its permeation into the country is being legitimised through all these elements of disinformation, radicalization, propaganda, etc. that are poisoning Bosnian society through the pro-Russian discourses of local leaders.

An alternative interpretation suggests that Russia’s plan would be the support of BiH’s accession to the EU as a sort of a Trojan Horse, which is actually the main reason why some sources say NATO could suspend BiH’s candidacy. At this point of high international tensions, it is true that any scenario could be possible in a context of constant risk of war.

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