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 violentfashion, 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.
Dodik is Russia’s primary asset in the region. Even more so than Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, a longtime Kremlin ally, 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. Over the past three 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. 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.
Covic is a considerably more nebulous figure. To begin with, it is difficult to separate him from his benefactors in Zagreb. Like the nationalists in Serbia, Croatia’s ruling HDZ has never quite given up its irredentist claims on the Croat-majority regions of Bosnia. Indeed, its sister party, the HDZ BiH, often operates as a vehicle for Zagreb to voice its most extreme nationalist positions while maintaining a veneer of diplomatic respectability. But the careers of prominent HDZ BiH spokespersons such as Bozo Ljubic—a member of the Croatian parliament, head of Bosnia’s nongovernmental Croatian National Assembly, and a former member of the Bosnian parliament—neatly illustrate the connection between the HDZ’s two wings.
Despite its irredentist tendencies, post-Yugoslav Croatia has historically been suspicious of Moscow’s presence in the Balkans. After all, Russia is the main international backer of Croatia’s chief rival, Serbia—a sponsorship that goes back to the time of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic at least. In response, Zagreb has traditionally gravitated toward Brussels and Washington. Croatian-Serbian acrimony has even devolved into small-scale proxy warfare, with Serbian extremists fighting for Russia in the Donbas conflict and Croatian radicals backing Ukraine.
In Bosnia, however, these regional dynamics have always played out differently. In the 1990s, Zagreb and Belgrade worked together to carve up their smaller neighbor, through both tacit military coordination against Sarajevo and explicit compacts such as the ill-fated Graz Agreement of 1992. This cooperation has survived in the form of the years-long alliance between Dodik and Covic, who have become steadfast friends in a country known for seemingly constant interethnic strife. For Covic, Dodik’s absolute control in Republika Srpska serves as a template for his own quest to establish a “third entity” in Bosnia—an ostensibly monoethnic, Croat-dominated province in Herzegovina. For his part, Dodik sees Covic as an ally in his effort to undermine attempts by Bosnia’s national government (and its backers in Brussels and Washington) to create a more streamlined and rational administrative state for the country, which today has 14 different local governments for a population of less than four million people.
This is the situation that Russia has suddenly stepped into, emerging as an ardent advocate of what the HDZ BiH refers to as “Croat self-determination”—that is, Croat nationalism in Bosnia. But what happened to Zagreb’s nominal opposition to Moscow’s Balkan operations?
THE CROATIAN CONNECTION
The fact is that contrary to Dagmar Skrpec’s recent assertion in Foreign Affairs,Croatia is far from a beacon of regional stability. The country is on the precipice of its worst political and economic crisis since independence. Agrokor, one of the largest firms in the western Balkans and the backbone of Croatia’s economy, is on the brink of collapse. If it fails, it will absolutely decimate both the country and the region as a whole. Waiting in the wings is Russia’s state-backed Sberbank, which has emerged as Agrokor’s most aggressive creditor. Moscow, in other words, is poised to capture a huge portion of the Croatian economy in one fell swoop—and Zagreb knows it. So instead of being a bulwark against Russian influence in the Balkans, Croatia is set to become the next Russian domino to fall. It has recently quieted its criticism of the Kremlin’s activities in the region (while peddling Moscow’s favored revisionist claimsabout the dissolution of Yugoslavia) in exchange for favorable terms in navigating the country’s financial meltdown.
This is where the two HDZs are important. On August 24, in the midst of Croatia’s economic crisis, Russian Ambassador to Bosnia Petar Ivancov spoke out vehementlyon Bosnia’s so-called Croat question, which he called “a reality . . . that cannot be ignored and for which a solution must be found.” Ivancov’s words echoed the rhetoric of both the Croatian and the Bosnian HDZ parties, which allege the need for further ethnic fragmentation in Bosnia to defend the position of the country’s Croat community. By explicitly referring to the “Croat question,” Ivancov was deploying an HDZ-coined term that is rejected not only in Sarajevo but in Brussels.
Ivancov made this announcement on the same day he spoke to Dodik in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska. There, the ambassador pledged Russian support for attempts by Republika Srpska to resist a recent decision by the Bosnian Constitutional Court, which found that all the military installations there were Bosnian state property. The issue is central to Bosnia’s NATO aspirations, as the alliance has demanded Sarajevo make a full accounting of all military properties in the country before its membership bid can continue.
A NATO-aligned Bosnia is anathema to both Banja Luka and Moscow, and they will do whatever they can to stop it. Thus in one day, Russia became a champion of both the Croat and the Serb nationalist causes in Bosnia. In building this coalition of chaos, the Kremlin is looking ahead to Bosnia’s 2018 general elections. In particular, Moscow is concerned that it is seeing a genuine reformist alliance taking shape.
Bosnia’s squabbling civic and left parties are moving toward a coalition pact that has long eluded them. At the same time, opposition forces in Republika Srpska, and among the HDZ’s Croat competitors, are consolidating their ranks. Bosnia’s constitutional regime, with its byzantine layers of ethnic quotas, is such that non–ethnically based parties have a hard time translating their votes to seats in government. But a landslide is not necessary for incremental change. A handful of strategic wins by opposition forces—such as opposition leader Mladen Ivanic’s 2014 defeat of Dodik’s pick for the Bosnian presidency’s Serb seat—can create openings. Indeed, it is how the country managed to finally apply for EU candidacy last year. By simply allowing the application to be submitted, Ivanic significantly altered the obstructionist stance of Nikola Spiric, his Dodik-backed predecessor.
If 2018 sees a similar opposition victory, then Bosnia, like Macedonia, will quickly renew its bid to join NATO—both an easier and more important project than joining the EU. For Sarajevo, NATO membership means a guarantee of sovereignty and territorial integrity. And with apprehension toward Russia growing in the United States and Europe, both might help usher Bosnia through the accession process.
Russia, however, will feel that it cannot let Bosnia slip through its fingers. Even its deepening roots in Serbia will be largely futile if it loses its grip on the Balkans’ wounded center. One way or another, the next year will be a turning point for Russia’s plans in the region. If Moscow’s proxies in the country maintain their debilitating grip on power in 2018, Russia will likely retreat to the shadows, its objective of keeping Bosnia out of NATO and EU once again assured. But if the amalgam of reformist forces makes a breakthrough, then Moscow will be forced to respond by any means necessary.