Radio Free Europe’s “Most” (Bridge) addresses the question of whether Russian interest in the western Balkans increased after the start of the Ukrainian crisis.
Addressing it with “Most” founder Omer Karabeg are Bodo Weber, associate of the Democratization Policy Council in Berlin, and Marko Prelec, director of the Balkan Group for Political Research.
Karabeg: Which former Yugoslavian countries are most important for Russia?
Weber: Russia is trying to gain influence in those countries where the European Union and the US have left some space. That includes parts of the Balkans. I primarily think of Serbia, but Russian influence in Serbia has somewhat decreased following the signing of the Brussels Agreement [by Serbia and the UN]. On the other hand, Russia has relatively strong influence on the Republic of Srpska, mostly because of strong connections with President [Milorad] Dodik. Moscow also has certain influence on parts of the opposition in Montenegro.
Karabeg: How strongly is Serbia connected to Russia at this point?
Prelec: Serbia depends on Russia when it comes to energy, but not more than other countries, including the countries of the European Union that imposed sanctions on Russia. The political connection is much stronger, but it is mostly emotional. That strong emotional connection with Russia influences political relations between the two countries.
Weber: The romantic image of Russia as a big brother helping Serbia is very strong in Serbia, which is far from the reality. When it comes to the economy, the strongest connection to Russia is in the energy sector – and that is more a dependence than a connection. That dependence is a price for the ideologically colored alliance with Russia, especially because of the supposed Russian assistance in the defense of Kosovo, which in the end, did not bring Kosovo back to Serbia. Serbia paid an enormous price, because it cheaply sold a big part of its energy sector to Russia [hoping to secure Russia’s veto on Kosovo independence in the UN].
I would like to remind of the sale of the Serbia Oil Industry (NIS) and the three percent ore rental that Russia pays for oil exploitation, which is one of the lowest in Europe. During his last visit to Moscow, [Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar] Vucic attempted to increase that percentage, but he obviously failed.
Karabeg: Who are the Serbian politicians Russia can count on at the moment?
Prelec: At this moment in Serbia – and I think that will last for a while – there are no other important factors aside from Vucic, so the stances of other politicians toward Russia are not important at all. Still, I do not think that [Foreign Minister Ivica] Dacic or [President Tomislav] Nikolic are Russia’s men. During my time in Belgrade I saw how few politicians actually think about global issues, about issues far away. That can be applied to the highest level as well – to people such as Vucic, Dacic and Nikolic.
Issues of crucial interest for Russia are not on the radar of Serbian policy. They are not relevant to them and there is no way some Serbian politician would sacrifice anything – that is important for Serbia or him personally—for Russia. Also, there is a question of what Serbia can offer Russia in military or any other aspect. Serbia can offer very little. It is also a question of what Russia can offer Serbia aside from its veto to accept Kosovo into the United Nations. I do not think official Belgrade understands what it gets from its friendship with Moscow and how it thinks it can use Russian support in the Security Council regarding the issue of Kosovo.
Weber: It is interesting to note that after the snap elections in March this year, Dacic and Vucic allegedly went for medical treatment in Moscow. That has never been confirmed or denied. I think that the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) is closest to Moscow, which can be confirmed by the fact that its officials are in key positions in the energy sector. Minister Zorana Mihajlovic from the Serbian Progressive Party has criticized its non-transparent energy policy and supported the transformation of management in public companies, that were led by the SPS elite she was in conflict with. It is interesting that Prime Minister Vucic sided with SPS in that conflict, even though he had promised to defend his ministers. Until Vucic implements reforms and deals with the old way of politics, socialists will remain the strongest Russian connection in Serbia.
Karabeg: Russia is more and more present in the Republic of Srpska. Mister Weber, do you think that Russia is encouraging Dodik to lead the policy of negation of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state?
Weber: We can see close connections between Dodik and Russia for years. Not one hour passes after every meeting of the Peace Implementation Council, at which the Russian Ambassador to BiH is present, without Dodik appearing before the media to inform them about the details of the meeting. We are constantly watching some sort of a ping-pong game between Russian Ambassador and Mister Dodik. That game has been ongoing for a long time. The European Union and the US left a vacuum in BiH for the past seven or eight years.
Mister Dodik jumped into that vacuum with his provocative politics. He showed he is a strong figure and that Western policy in BiH is weak. Russia also jumped into that empty space supporting Dodik – not because of some geo-political interests they have in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but simply to exploit weaknesses of the West. That is the method Moscow has been using for years, and Dodik was welcomed as a partner. Only Dodik benefited from that, not the citizens of the Republic of Srpska. Citizens of the Republic of Srpska, just as citizens of Serbia, are paying the highest price for Russian gas in Europe. They also subsidized the privatization of Brod Oil Refinery, which was sold to Russians.
Prelec: This is how I would comment the story about alleged steps towards secession of the Republic of Srpska: “Oh wonder, elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina are coming and there are talks of secession.” There are talks about secession before every election in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Those are, actually, old stories, and Dodik is not hiding his wish to see the RS independent, nor is he hiding his conviction that will happen. But he is also not hiding the fact it is not a realistic possibility. I do not remember if he said it publicly or to me personally, but he said it once: “I could declare secession tomorrow and get recognition of ten countries, and it would all stop there. What do I get from that, and what do Serbs get from that?” He is more or less right.
When it comes to Russian politics, I think it is crucial to distinguish the official Russian foreign policy apparatus, which supports the Dayton Peace Accords, which means it is against secession, from the policy of President Putin. Putin gives himself a right to decide how he wants and how he wishes. If he were to decide that support of dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina is in his interest, he would not think twice about going that way.
Weber: I would not agree with my colleague Prelec. I do not see any difference between the Foreign Minister[B1] and the Russian President. I believe there is a strictly determined hierarchy and I doubt there is a space for some independent policies. Second, Mister Prelec attempted to portray our information about possible secession the way western diplomats have been reacting to Dodik’s threats for years. They keep saying it is all rhetoric and that Mister Dodik cannot get anywhere with it. That is correct to a point, but it has also been used by the western diplomats for years as a tool to avoid reality and the fact that concrete, permanent politics of undermining Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state is behind those verbal threats. That is one thing.
Second thing, if the information we got is correct, it is not connected to the elections. It is connected to global geo-political changes, which took place this spring, and the annexation of Crimea. If Mister Dodik, through that geo-political turnover, thought he can realize his plan – despite the fact that Russia is far away and it cannot send its soldiers, not even camouflaged ones as in the case of Crimea – then we must ask ourselves about the situation in the Republic of Srpska. ..
Karabeg: Would Russia like to see dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina in a long run?
Weber: I do not think we have Russian geostrategic interests for either preservation of the Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina or its dissolution. I disagree with Mister Prelec that Russia cares about the Dayton Peace Accords. It is using its alleged defense of the Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina, just like Mister Dodik does. That is why they think alike. In the end, everything depends on Moscow’s estimates. Moscow can decide that a weak Bosnia and Herzegovina suits Russia. And it can also decide, during a potential escalation of conflict with the West, that they should support Mister Dodik or someone else in the Republic of Srpska towards secession, regardless of the fact that would cause conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It could happen, but it is not certain, because the development of global geopolitical situation is unpredictable. That is why we now have only speculation, and that must remain in the sphere of speculation.
Karabeg: The UN Security Council is expected to vote on whether the EUFOR forces will remain in Bosnia in Herzegovina after November. Do you believe that Russia could veto the extension of the EUFOR mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Weber: There are serious indications that Russia intends to challenge extension of the EUFOR mission. We will see whether or not that will happen. We know there is a Plan B prepared by certain western forces in case of a Russian veto. If that happens, it will be interesting to see how Germany will behave, because it supported abolishment of all institutions with the executive Dayton mandate for years, including EUFOR. Germany has been promoting the same stance as Russia for years, without any deeper geostrategic background. If it continues to support that stance, that would mean that Berlin is backing Moscow, and that would not fit in in current geopolitical relations. It will be interesting to see the position of Berlin if Moscow vetoes extension of the EUFOR mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but I think we will not know that before the discussion in the Security Council in November.
Prelec: I do not have any information about it, but it is certainly possible for Russia to veto the decision. So far, Russia has supported the extension of the mandate, but in the current circumstances and given tensions between Russia and the West, it is possible Russia will use its right to veto in order to express its discontent. Still, I am not certain that is an important issue. It is hard for me to see a situation in which EUFOR forces could be used in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Those forces are small today, unlike those in Kosovo, where less than two years ago KFOR forces used weapons and where one European officer was killed a year ago. If such a big crisis did happen in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is hard to imagine what EUFOR could do.
Karabeg: Do you think, Mister Weber, that in a case of big conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the European Union would use military forces?
Weber: I do not like to think about horror scripts, but the information we gained prove that the President of the Republic of Srpska seriously considered secession. That potential scenario is rather dangerous. Mister Prelec is right when he says that the EUFOR forces are small, but even such small forces have a mandate to act if it comes to that, if we find ourselves in a situation I do not even want to think about. And I must say that I am glad EUFOR still has that mandate, even though nobody wants to find oneself in a situation to use it.
Karabeg: Is Russian influence in the western Balkans going to get stronger?
Prelec: In the long-term, and I would dare to say in the short-term, it will not. I think it is going to weaken. When you see how Russia annexed Crimea and, to say openly, invaded neighboring Ukraine – it seems that Russia is ascending. However, there is no exit strategy for Putin. Russia has a rather small economy in comparison with the European Union, the US or China. It has only one big trump card, and that is energy. I think that is why Russian influence is going to weaken everywhere in the world, including the Balkans, and that will become rather visible very soon.
Weber: Russian influence in the western Balkans will certainly not become stronger. It has been weakening in the past years, mostly because the initiative of the European Union to establish the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. That move made the European Union an important player in resolving the issue of Kosovo. That also significantly weakened Russian influence on Serbia, and it will continue to weaken, even though Russia is attempting to strengthen it because of the Ukrainian crisis. But it will fail. That influence will weaken also because of what Mister Prelec said. The politics of President Putin is reminiscent of the politics of Slobodan Milosevic. That is, short-term politics, tactics without strategy, which in the long run destroys itself; politics that brings suffering to its neighbors and that is mostly damaging to the people whose leader is supporting such politics. And I fear that is what we will see in the case of Russia.