Dado Ruvic / Reuters A portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs inside an abandoned building in Kravica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 2015.

Russia's Bosnia Gambit

Intrigue in the Balkans

After two years of crisis, Macedonia finally formed a new government in June, installing a reformist, center-left coalition committed to rebooting the country’s stalled integration into the EU and NATO. That same month, Montenegro became NATO’s newest member state, after a tumultuous accession process that lasted nearly a decade. These developments are good news for the overall stability of the western Balkans, a region still mired in sectarianism and provincialism.

But they are also major blows to the regional aspirations of Russia, which hopes to keep the still unincorporated segments of the former Yugoslavia “neutral”—that is, outside the EU-NATO fold. Moscow actively sought to prevent the pro-Western transitions in Macedonia and Montenegro, sometimes in dramatic and violent fashion, and will doubtlessly continue to meddle in the affairs of both countries. But the target of Russia’s next Balkan gambit—possibly the most forceful one yet—is in the region’s strategic center: Bosnia and Herzegovina.

MOSCOW’S BOSNIAN PROXIES

Russia’s plan for Bosnia will be shaped by two major factors. The first is the Kremlin’s long-standing relationship with Milorad Dodik, the secessionist president of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb-dominated autonomous region. The second, more alarming factor is the emerging link between Moscow and Dragan Covic, the Croat member of the country’s three-person presidency and head of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH), an offshoot of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the current governing party in Zagreb.

Russia’s objective 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. Accordingly, Russia is seeking to ally with Dodik and Covic, the two biggest champions of ethnic fragmentation and dysfunction in Bosnia.

Despite its irredentist tendencies, post-Yugoslav Croatia has historically been suspicious of Moscow’s presence in the Balkans.

Dodik is Russia’s primary asset in the region. Even more so than Serbian President 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. Russia’s recent $125 million Yugoslav-era debt repayment to Bosnia, for instance, was primarily a lifeline for Dodik, who in January was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for conducting an unconstitutional referendum in late 2016. Washington believes the referendum, which sought to reinstate an official holiday marking Republika Srpska’s founding, violated the Dayton peace accords by ignoring the Bosnian Constitutional Court’s repeated finding that the holiday discriminated against the region’s non-Serb population.

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