The Ukrainian crisis has accelerated the diplomatic race between Russia and the West to strengthen their influence in the Western Balkans. A new study (“The Western Balkans and the Ukraine crisis – a changed game for EU and US policies?”) by authors Bodo Weber and Kurt Bassuener of the Berlin-based Democratization Policy Council investigates new challenges for the policy of the European Union and the US in the region amid the context of relations between the West and Russia.
Weber gave an interview with the RFE and talked about the intentions of RS President Milorad Dodik to initiate his long-time threat of RS secession during the annexation of Crimea, with alleged Russian support – and how Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic managed to stop him for now.
Weber: During our research, we more or less accidentally discovered that information, first from one source, and then confirmed it from other different sources. It turns out that the whole Western diplomatic corps knew about that incident. The information reveals that Mr. Milorad Dodik, the President of the Republika Srpska, called Mr. Aleksandar Vucic, the Prime Minister of Serbia, at the beginning of the Crimean annexation and wanted to use that situation to start implementing his old threat, but Prime Minister Vucic stopped him in his intentions – he actually cancelled support for such a move.
RFE: According to the Western diplomatic sources you contacted, did Dodik truly have the support of Russia for RS secession at the time Putin annexed Crimea?
Dodik denies Weber's claims
Milorad Dodik, the President of Bosnia's Republika Srpska, denied Weber's claims that he discussed moves for the secession of his "entity" with Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
"That question was not on the agenda during our talks, although the status of the Republika Srpska is a permanent topic,“ Dodik told the Belgrade daily Danas.
Weber: Several diplomatic sources independently told us that Dodik claimed to have Russian support for steps towards RS secession. Whether he truly did have the support of Russia for secession moves is not clear. If we look at it in the context of the Ukrainian crisis at the time of the annexation of Crimea, I do not find the claim of Russian support plausible. Yes, generally, he does have Russian support – which is something we have seen in the past years – but I do not find the thesis of Moscow planning to initiate another crisis – and not in Moldova, Transnistria or Georgia, but in the RS – unconvincing. I would sooner say that Dodik believed he would have the support, and that only speaks of the crisis his regime is in. When a regime is in crisis, you have nervousness, poor evaluations and irrational moves. It is obvious we have such a situation in the RS – at least that is my interpretation.
RFE: Did the information about Dodik’s intentions to make steps towards RS secession and Vucic’s stopping him sound convincing to you?
Weber: If Dodik had serious intentions to initiate secession of the RS from BiH – that I find completely convincing. Western diplomats have convinced themselves for years that it is only rhetoric, and if their sources now present information that, at least at this time, there are serious intentions behind the rhetoric, I find that very convincing. And claims from the same sources that the Serbian Prime Minister prevented his intentions are rather convincing as well. We have been able to see statements by Prime Minister Vucic that confirm it. When, for example, he visited Germany in late June, and he was bombarded with questions from certain German journalists about attending the opening of the ‘Andricgrad’ site, Vucic clearly showed that the Serbian Government does not share the opinion of Mr. Dodik. We were able to see that at many of the meetings between Vucic and Dodik in the past six months.
RFE: In the end, you do not believe Vucic supports the secession of the RS from BiH?
Weber: Absolutely. Two years ago we conducted a study about relations between the Serbian leadership and the RS leader, when the Democratic Party of former Serbian President Boris Tadic was at the helm. Tadic did use that brotherly relationship with Dodik a lot for his national image, but behind the scenes he was unable to control Dodik, who was a problem for him. But Tadic never mentioned that publicly because he used him for his campaigns.
Unlike Tadic, Vucic distanced himself from Dodik. For example, we had, I think in May, a press conference with Vucic and Didik, when Dodik once again questioned the existence of BiH. Vucic stated, even though not explicitly, that this was not the stance of the Serbian Government. Over a recent period we were able to register Vucic’s distancing himself from participation in the pre-election campaign in the RS. All of that has one clear direction, even though we see, just like several years ago with the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, that when the West does not have a clear position, they avoid clearly distancing themselves from some of their historical and traditional positions from the nineties.