Will the next move of Russia be in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Chess board; Photo: Pixabay

Russian influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina is mainly exercised through Milorad Dodik and Dragan Čović, writes Jasmin Mujanović in a recenlty published article in Foreign Affairs, where he describes the strategy as “Russia’s Bosnia Gambit”.

Although the article reminds on the positive news from the Western Balkans region, respectively on the end of the two-year crisis in Macedonia, and its return to the Euro-Atlantic path, as well as recalling that Montenegro is the newest member of the NATO Alliance, which Moscow was quite struggling to prevent, the piece is a critical high-profile review on current circumstances in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a special attention on Russia’s intentions in the near future.

“These developments are good news for the overall stability of Western Balkans, and the region is still mired in sectarianism and provincialism”, Mujanović evaluates with a moderate optimism the recent changes in Montenegro and Macedonia.

The article contains a statement that you can rarely see in the mainstream discourse – that the next move by Russia on the Balkan chessboard will be in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Whether this gambit by Russia will be successful depends primarily on two factors.

The first is an almost indispensable link when mentioning the Russian influence in the Western Balkans, Milorad Dodik, who is openly called “the secessionist president of Republika Srpska”. Dragan Čović, who is listed as a second factor, is a Croat member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and president of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH), a party that it is described by  Mujanović as an “offshoot of HDZ from Zagreb”, which is a ruling party in Croatia.

These two points are the main link for Moscow to do what it has intended. As Mujanović stressed, “Russia’s goal is simple: keep Bosnia out of NATO and the EU. Moscow wants to ensure that the country remains an ethnically fragmented basket case in the heart of the Balkans.” According to the article, Russia attempts to create an alliance between Dodik and Čović, which are “the two biggest champions of ethnic fragmentation and dysfunction in Bosnia.”

“Dodik is the Balkan leader who most loudly champions Russian interests, voicing steadfast opposition to NATO, the EU, and especially U.S. influence in the Balkans”, Mujanović points out. This is exemplified by the fact that within the last several years, “Dodik has also become a frequent visitor to Moscow, and the worse the economic situation in his illiberal fief has become, the more openly he has lobbied for Russian financial support.”  The fact is that Russia paid $ 125 million to Bosnia based on the debt repayment to Bosnia from the Yugoslav era, but this was, according to the article, primarily a lifeline for rescuing Dodik.

The other line is even more powerful. “Čović is a considerably more nebulous figure”, Mujanović emphasizes in the text, and that it is difficult to separate him from his benefactors in Zagreb. This link is most visible through the other prominent figure, Božo Ljubić, a member of the Croatian Parliament and head of the Bosnian non-governmental “Croatian National Assembly” and a former member of the Bosnian parliament, which “neatly illustrates the connection between the two HDZ’s wings.”

In addition to showing the open link between the HDZ in Croatia and its branch in Bosnia and Herzegovina, perhaps a more significant signal for the obstruction of BiH as a state on the Euro-Atlantic path, Mujanović writes, is the address of the Russian ambassador to BiH, Petar Ivancov, who, regarding the Croatian question, said that is a “reality. . . that cannot be ignored and for which, a solution must be found.”

So-called “Croatian question” is “a concept that is being rejected in Sarajevo, but also in Brussels,” Mujanović points out. Mujanović also emphasizes that it was not at a random moment when the statement from Ambassador came, and reminds that it was in the midst of the “Agrokor crisis” that arose due to the large debt of Agrokor (which is mentioned as one of the pillars of the economy, not only of Croatia but the entire region) to several Russian banks.

The next significant crossroads for increasing or decreasing Russian influence are related to the parliamentary elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina next year.

“If in 2018 there is a similar relative victory of the opposition, as in 2010 or even 2014 (when Mladen Ivanić’s victory over Željko Cvijanović created the opportunity to open the European path of Bosnia and Herzegovina) then BiH, like Macedonia, will quickly renew its candidacy for joining NATO, a lighter and more important project than joining the EU.” writes Mujanović. Adding that “Russia, however, will feel that it cannot let Bosnia slip through its fingers” when it comes to the further elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2018.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States