Tensions are once again brewing in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, has declared his intention to separate Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serb region of Bosnia, from the nation as a whole. This is not the first time that Dodik has tried to separate Republika Srpska from BiH. However, Dodik’s actions now come at a time of high tension across Europe due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The timing of this has alarmed European and international observers, with the European Union (EU) issuing a letter denouncing Dodik.
The two events are not simply coincidental. Serbia, and by extension the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska, are more pro-Russian than the rest of the Balkans and most of Europe. Serbia has refused to implement sanctions on Russia in the face of its illegal invasion of Ukraine, with thousands of people even marching on the streets of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, in support of Russia. Dodik and his Republika Srpska government, for its part, have actively rallied against BiH’s application to the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), instead being in favour of closer ties with Russia.
Serbian Ultranationalism and Irredentism
Republika Srpska is not the only haven of pro-Serbian and pro-Russian sentiment in the Western Balkans. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and subsequent border changes, large ethnic Serb populations were left beyond the borders of Serbia, especially in Bosnia but also Croatia and Kosovo, a partially-recognised breakaway region of Serbia. This has led to some in the Serbian government supporting a policy of irredentism, where a nation actively seeks to regain territory that it believes to be rightfully its own.
Serbian politics has also been affected by ultranationalism, though its effect on the national government is declining. The current Serbian government is in favour of Serbia joining the EU, and the country has made progress on EU accession in recent years; however, pro-Russian parties are still quite active in the country. The ultranationalist and far-right Serbian Radical Party, whose predecessor enjoyed 20% of the vote in the elections of 1992, supports Russia, with its leader speaking out in favour of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, the current president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, was part of the Serbian Radical Party until 2008 but has now become more centrist. Vučić’s centrism is reflective of Serbia’s politics as a whole; the Serbian Radical Party won a paltry 2% of the vote in Serbia’s most recent elections.
The government, despite being ostensibly centrist, has refused to crack down on Serbian ultranationalists. President Vučić has called Russia “Serbia’s friend,” and said that his country should integrate with the EU but “maintain independence” in its foreign policy, as Russia has supported Serbia in the past. Serbia has thus tried to maintain good relations with both the West and with Russia, which has not endeared it with the EU. Serbia is an applicant to the EU, but its close relationship with Russia has hindered progress on Serbia’s accession to the bloc. There are two main reasons why Serbia is somewhat reluctant to move away from Russia: Kosovo, and lingering tensions from the Yugoslav Wars. Both are intricately tied with Serbian national pride and nationalism. In each case, Russia stood with Serbia against the Western Bloc, thus tying the Serbian right with Russia.
Kosovo and the Yugoslav Wars: Why Does Serbia Embrace Russia?
Kosovo is a majority ethnic Albanian breakaway region of Serbia. Since its declaration of independence in 2008, around one hundred countries, including Canada, the US, and most of the EU, have recognised its independence. In comparison, Russia and its allies support Serbia and do not recognise Kosovar independence. This has made Serbia and Russia allies on the Kosovar question. Kosovo remains an area of tension nearly fifteen years after its declaration of independence. Serbia has continued its campaign of rallying countries in reversing their recognition of Kosovo in direct opposition to Kosovo’s ongoing fight to secure international support for its statehood. Licensing and trade tariffs have been used as political tools by both sides, which has hampered talks between Kosovo and Serbia regarding the normalisation of relations between the two.
In fact, Kosovo’s history is the second reason why Serbia has hesitated to embrace the West. Kosovo was the site of a horrific war from 1998 to 1999, where over one million ethnic Albanians were driven from their homes in Kosovo into neighbouring Albania. In response, NATO bombed Serbian military targets and the capital, Belgrade, which angered Russia (as Serbia was a Russian ally then as it is now). Russia has been providing Serbia with military equipment in an effort to keep an ally in the region and prevent further NATO expansion, which was part of Russia’s rationale for its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s Role: Why is This Important?
Serbia and Russia’s amicable relations have significant ramifications beyond the Balkans. Serbia’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia in the face of its invasion of Ukraine has led to Russia circumventing sanctions through Serbian corporations. Air Serbia, Serbia’s national airline, ramped up flights from Belgrade to Moscow in late February after many western nations imposed flight bans on Russian planes, only reverting this decision later due to EU pressure. Serbia does not appear to be willing to veer from Russia anytime soon, forcing the EU to make the decision whether to further alienate Belgrade, or allow Moscow to evade sanctions through Serbia.
In addition, the ethnic and territorial disputes in BiH and Kosovo remain two potential catalysts for violence in the Balkans. The region is no stranger to war, which, if one breaks out, will likely cause a mass exodus of refugees similar to the Yugoslav Wars. Should such a conflict occur, it could further test the EU and whether it can respond to two crises on its borders at the same time. The stability of Europe may, as it did at the outset of WWI, rest in the Balkans.
Edited by Chase Kelliher