Putin’s Balkan Offensive
On the weekend, the leader of Bosnia’s Serb Republic threatened secession if he did not get reforms, proposing to hold a referendum on leaving the country if his demands are not met by the end of 2017. Milorad Dodik, who has ruled over the Bosnian Serbs, on and off, for most of the twenty years since the United States forced a peace settlement to end Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, has toyed with secession before, but his weekend announcement represents the most direct threat ever to the country’s postwar political system.
In fairness to Dodik and the Bosnian Serbs, almost nobody in Bosnia is happy with the current system, which when it was hashed out in Dayton, Ohio in the autumn of 1995, under Clinton administration pressure, was never intended to be more than a temporary political solution to Bosnia’s political conflicts, yet here we are two decades later, and that short-term solution has become a seriously flawed, long-lasting one.
Dayton Bosnia is a deeply dysfunctional polity, with a weak, state-level government in Sarajevo plus two “entity” governments: the Serb Republic in Banja Luka and the Muslim-Croat Federation, also in Sarajevo. Its defects are too many to list briefly but boil down to a decrepit economy that never recovered from the war two decades ago, staggeringly high unemployment (officially it approaches fifty percent, but that is an underestimate), plus corruption so pervasive that it cannot be rooted out without cashiering the country’s whole political class, regardless of party or ethnicity (Dodik himself being one of the country’s biggest pols-on-the-take). Anybody who can escape Bosnia does so, leaving the country of four million with a declining population and a serious brain-drain.
Poor and corrupt, the Serb Republic isn’t a viable place, but neither is the whole country, and nobody knows what to do about it. The Dayton Accords created an impoverished ward of the European Union that nobody knows what to do with, yet which festers with crime, corruption, and extremism. And it’s not only the Serbs who want out: Croats, too, are deeply dissatisfied with the Dayton arrangement, which left them without an entity of their own, but unhappy Bosnian Croats can at least escape easily to neighboring Croatia, which distributes its EU passports to any fellow Croats who want them.
The root of Bosnia’s turmoil is not difficult to grasp in its essentials, though the diplo-dialect used by Eurocrats and American overseers buries it under lots of legalese and Balkan jargon that is impenetrable to outsiders. Bosnian Muslims want a more centrally controlled state, which they as the country’s largest ethnic group will dominate, while the Serbs want more autonomy for their entity and have no desire to live in a Muslim-dominated Bosnia. This is the exact same dispute that Bosnia collapsed into war over back in 1992: nothing has changed except a hundred thousand people got killed and a beautiful country got wrecked.
To be fair to the Serbs, there has been anger and confusion over recognition of an independent Kosovo by most of NATO and the EU, including the United States, after that former Serbian province formally separated itself from Belgrade in 2008, nearly a decade after NATO went to war on its behalf. Nobody in Brussels or Washington, DC, has been able to plausibly explain why Serbia’s borders can be redrawn but Bosnia’s cannot.
For NATO and the EU, Bosnia’s territorial integrity has been sacrosanct, even though partition, as with Kosovo, represents the obvious long-term solution to a problem that nobody really has any other fixes for. Yet, as the Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians learned after World War One, when the Americans push “national self-determination” they mean it for some people, and not for others. Unsurprisingly, Bosnia’s Serbs have pushed back against this American and EU double standard for two decades, to no avail, and Dodik’s exasperation reached its breaking point on the weekend.
Banja Luka has hardly been its own best ally in its campaign to get more power for Bosnia’s Serbs, with their nationalist antics alienating even their friends at times, yet it should be noted that the Muslims have shown little willingness to even discuss Dodik’s demands. That is functionally impossible, since much of Sarajevo’s elite, to include the Muslim clerical establishment, has demonized the Serbs with constant charges of genocide during the 1992-95 war — notwithstanding that such claims are at best a partial truth about that ugly conflict — and who, after all, can be expected to parley with such monsters? This peculiar version of “Holocaust theology” among Bosnia’s Muslims does not bode well for reconciliation and harmony. Total political paralysis has been the logical outcome.
Although it needs to be made clear that Bosnians of all stripes are primarily responsible for their country’s dismal situation, thanks to their seemingly intractable inability to get along, the West bears ample blame for Bosnia’s deep dysfunction, and not merely for creating the Dayton situation. As in Afghanistan, throwing billions of dollars in reconstruction funds, while not watching closely where it goes, led to NATO being the cash-cow for Bosnian organized crime and corruption.
Above all, the existence of the Serb Republic today is due to American intervention, a strange case of Balkan blowback. In early August 1995, the Croatian military unleashed its victory offensive, Operation STORM, to regain the territory it lost to Serb rebels in 1991. Still the largest European military operation since 1945, STORM rapidly crushed the Serbs and, with American go-ahead, Zagreb continued Croatia’s march into Bosnia, with the help of Bosnian Croat and Muslim forces. Two months of offensives followed, backed by NATO airpower, the Atlantic Alliance’s first-ever military operation, and by early October the Croats were at the gates of Banja Luka, having taken the heights of Manjača, a strategic mountain fifteen miles south of the Bosnian Serb capital.
The complete defeat of the Bosnian Serbs was at hand, since without Banja Luka, the only real city the Bosnian Serbs possessed, their pseudo-state would simply not be viable. Yet, mysteriously, on the night of 11-12 October 1995, the Croats suddenly halted their offensive. It was an open secret that they would have been in Banja Luka within twenty-four hours, as the Bosnian Serb Army was in chaotic retreat. It was equally an open secret that a call from Washington, DC, had ordered the Croats to halt their victory march.
While it’s not completely clear why the Americans wanted the Croats to stop short of a strategic victory over the Bosnian Serbs, allowing Banja Luka to stay in Serbian hands twenty years ago set the troubled course Bosnia has been on ever since. Having permitted the Serb Republic to live in the autumn of 1995, the Americans constructed the ramshackle Dayton system that would leave nobody in Bosnia satisfied.
This Goldilocks approach to Bosnia, where nobody’s Balkan porridge is ever quite right, worked inadequately for nearly two decades, in its own dysfunctional way, yet over the last year the game has been changed by Vladimir Putin, and only now is the West taking notice. It’s not that the Kremlin has exactly been hiding its diplomatic offensive in the region. Suspicious numbers of Russian diplomats have been visiting Banja Luka, a tiny place by European standards, while last September Putin praised Dodik as “an experienced politician and manager” while the Bosnian Serb leader was in Moscow. In exchange, Dodik hailed Russia’s theft of Crimea from Ukraine, praising it as a model of self-determination that the Bosnian Serb leader made clear set an example for changing Bosnia’s borders too.
There is significant ideological harmony between Banja Luka and Moscow, based on an anti-Western ideology grounded in Orthodoxy and Slavic nationalism, all of which masks a great deal of corruption and personal profiteering. This ideological alliance has been cemented by Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired Russian intelligence general who makes regular trips to the Balkans to visit his “brother” Serbs. A Kremlin insider with strongly nationalist and religious views, Reshetnikov is a fierce advocate of what I term Putin’s Orthodox Jihad, and he heads a major Moscow think-tank that serves as an arm of Russian foreign policy.
Unsurprisingly, Reshetnikov has counseled the Bosnian Serbs they must stand up to the West, since Brussels and Washington, DC, are plotting against them, seeking to destroy the Serbian entity. Just as unsurprisingly, this hardline nationalist take has won Reshetnikov plaudits from the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, which has hosted several of his visits to the region and bestowed him with high honors
This Kremlin offensive, with Reshetnikov in the ideological lead, has led some to worry about the “Russification” of Serbia, and that is a valid concern. However, despite ominous signs such as Serbian participation in the forthcoming Victory Day parade in Moscow on 9 May, including by the Serbian military, public opinion in that country remains divided between those who want a more European orientation for Serbia and those who seek some sort of Orthodox Slavic alliance with Russia. The outcome of this important debate remains uncertain.
However, there is little debate that in Bosnia’s Serb Republic the Kremlin’s allies have already won. Banja Luka is broke and weak, and here Putin’s money goes a long way — and already has. Thanks to the flawed Dayton structure imposed by the West, Bosnia as-is cannot be a functional country, and Putin is now exploiting a weakness that Western overseers should have fixed years ago, yet did not. Here the Russians are reaping easy diplomatic gains thanks to NATO and EU mistakes and unwillingness to fix them.
Skeptics are noting that Dodik that is merely playing a game to win more concessions from Sarajevo and the West, implying that he has no intention of actually staging any independence referendum. Dodik is unquestionably a scheming Balkan wheeler-dealer from central casting. Yet these are the same hopeful sorts who, over a year ago, assured us that Putin didn’t “really” mean all his nationalist rhetoric, he would never dare to actually invade Crimea and Eastern Ukraine …
The fate of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s looms large in Putin’s imagination as an example of what happens when the Europeans and the Americans gang up to dismantle a Slavic state: it is a warning sign to the Kremlin, the sort of thing that a strong and resurgent Russia will not allow to happen again in Eastern Europe. While this narrative of Yugoslavia’s violent collapse is very different from how most in the West view it, it’s widely held in Moscow and informs current Russian discussions of Bosnia and all of Southeastern Europe.
Bosnia may muddle through just yet, and perhaps Dodik is all talk. Dayton has lasted for twenty years in its plodding, dysfunctional way, and perhaps it will last for twenty more. But Banja Luka, with Moscow’s backing, is now signalling that real changes may be afoot that constitute a direct challenge to the political and security architecture the West created for the Balkans in the 1990’s. This is nothing less than a strategic offensive in the region — for now it falls under the rubric of Special War in typical Kremlin fashion — of the kind I told you Putin would bring to Europe this year. However, given the stakes there is no room for Western complacence, particularly given how badly it worked out the last time the Russians went all-in with their support for the Serbs.
UPDATE (0730 EST, 28 APR): Yesterday’s jihadist terrorist attack on a police station in Zvornik, which killed a Serb policeman (get the details here), seems perfectly timed to coincide with Dodik’s pro-independence move. As if on cue, the Bosnian Serb leader has stated that Banja Luka may withdraw from Bosnian state-level security structures, which would be an important step towards dismantling the Dayton apparatus. Elsewhere in the Balkans, Russian diplomats are stoking the fires of Orthodox Slavic nationalism and some people are starting to notice.