The full-scale war against Ukraine has also raised fears that Russia could further destabilise the peace process in Bosnia-Herzegovina – by using its significant influence in Republika Srpska (RS). How did the interplay between Moscow and the Bosnian-Serb leadership develop since 2022? An analysis through the prism of patron-client relations.
Since February 2022, international organisations and Western powers involved in the peace process in Bosnia-Herzegovina have dreaded a spill-over effect of Russia’s war against Ukraine in the Western Balkans, and therefore paid increased attention to the Russian penetration within Republika Srpska (RS) politics. This does not mean that the convergence of interests between the Bosnian-Serb leadership and Moscow is a new phenomenon. It dates to the mid-2010s, when Putin endeavoured to rebuild Russia’s influence and capacities in the Western Balkans following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas (Bechev, 2017). At the same time, Milorad Dodik, long-time President of the entity, endeavoured to build an ethnocratic system of governance over the entity and was seeking for a more proactive and powerful patron than Serbia, the RS historical patron (Gueudet, 2022). What has changed since February 2022, though, is the degree of embedded-ness of the local separatist agenda in Republika Srpska, which has been operating a de facto secession operation since December 2022, within the Kremlin’s disruptive and aggressive global policy agenda. It is precisely this embedded-ness that is under scrutiny here, as well as the nature and outcomes of the relations between Banja Luka and Moscow, analysed through the prism of patron-client relations.
Convergences between claims for statehood in Republika Srpska and Russian foreign policy in the Western Balkans
Proclaimed unilaterally on January 1992, the Serb-controlled breakaway state was reintegrated, against the will of the nationalistic wartime government of Radovan Karadžić, into Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Dayton Peace Agreement in November 1995. The RS nevertheless retained several state-like competencies, which the successive governments have preserved at the cost of antagonizing relations with their Bosniak and Bosnian-Croat counterparts and with international officials. Since 2006, under the autocratic leadership of Milorad Dodik and his political formation, the Party of Social Democrats (SNSD), authoritarianism and separatism have become paramount concepts in the entity’s politics. Capture of the entire system of governance by the SNSD, combined with its unbridled nationalistic rhetoric, paved the way for the establishment of an ethnocratic regime, whose rationales are the organisation of a referendum on self-determination, the transformation of BiH into “a union of states” and the constant undermining of the legitimacy and sovereignty of central institutions (Toal, 2013). The organisation of an illegal referendum on the validity of a decision about the unlawful character of Dan Republike by the Constitutional Court of BiH on Republika Srpska’s territory in 2016 has comforted Dodik’s position of strongman at home. It also marked the peak of his confrontational demeanour toward the central-state institutions and the international actors of the peace process, including the EU, NATO and the UN altogether. As a result of Dodik’s antagonising strategy, Republika Srpska became increasingly eager to let Moscow embrace the role of a patron-state to support the ethnocratic regime and its separatist agenda.
Of course, Moscow gets the opportunity to send a strong message to the “collective West”, understood as an antagonist centre of power, to stay out of Russia’s backyard (Ozawa, 2023). In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, Putin eventually set in motion the political leverages induced by the region’s dependency on Russian energy. Power projection expended to other spheres as Russia demonstrated its capacity to aggressively interfere into domestic politics and coercively challenge the regional order. Russia exploits the structural weaknesses and divides that strain the Western Balkans. It arrays a multidimensional strategy to expend and strengthen its influence and interfere at its convenience within domestic politics and conflicts. Russian penetration in the Western Balkans operates along three pillars: coercion, co-optation, and subversion (Bechev, 2019). In Republika Srpska, Russia’s entry through patron-client politics does not even rely on co-optation, but on the complete openness of the regime to embrace these dynamics as a component of its separatist strategy. Russia has, at the moment, operated a deep penetration into the sectors of political organisations, security, religion, culture and academia, and finally mass media (Metodieva, 2019).
Contributing to regime consolidation
Russia’s patron politics in Republika Srpska bring to the table valuable resources, of political, diplomatic and symbolic nature, for Dodik to weaponize in order to fulfil his separatist agenda. Even though Moscow conceived its power projection in the region as multisectorial and multidimensional, in the case of RS, what Russia delivers is first and foremost political legitimacy and credibility to the ethnocratic regime. Links between Dodik and Putin have grown extremely interpersonal over the years, and Dodik’s frequent visits to Moscow over the last few years have confirmed that the two found a common ground to work on for undermining Bosnian and regional stability. During the 2018 and 2022 electoral campaigns, Putin endorsed Dodik as “his” candidate, and, at the party-level, the SNSD has developed tight connexions with Russia United (Glas Srpske, 2016). Moreover, the Russian ambassador to BiH has more often than not taken Banja Luka’s side against Sarajevo (Glas Srpske, 2020a). So did the Russian Permanent Representative at the UN Security Council, who vetoed a certain number of decisions harmful for RS interests, like for instance the recognition of Srebrenica as genocide in 2015 under to motive of being “not constructive, confrontational and politically motivated” (Balkans Insights, 2015). The illegal celebration of Dan Republike (Republic’s Day), each 9th of January, has throughout the years offered to Milorad Dodik a platform for self-promotion and self-plebiscite. The 2023 edition made no exception, but this time, Dodik had to share his thunder. In absentia, Putin was awarded for his “patriotic care and love” for Republika Srpska, the highest decoration in the entity, the Order of the Republic necklace (Glas srpske, 2023a).
The political connections between the Bosnian-Serb leadership and the Kremlin are also manifest in how Dodik exercises power and how he mimics the Russian political model: personification of power, autocratic system and ideological foundations. Thanks to his skyrocketing popularity in RS, the Russian President positively rubs off on Dodik and the SNSD, who can cultivate his domestic and external image of a Putin-like strongman ready to confrontation and conflict to defend the entity (International Republican Institute, 2022). Recently, the RS government has been increasingly borrowing from Russia’s legal apparatus to repress political opposition, including the drafting of a law on foreign agents that targets non-governmental organizations, along with a law on defamation that would dramatically reduce press freedom (Radio Free Europe, 2023). Moreover, Dodik appropriates the concept of “Russkiy mir” to advocate for a “Srpski svet”, stressing that while RS aspires to become an independent state, it remains part of a world of “values related to our religion and identity” unified around the “matica”, the Serbian homeland (Radio Slobodna Evropa, 2019). Moreover, representations of Russia as an alternative centre of power and a “useful and impartial” ally, in opposition to a “collective West” hostile to RS vital interests for ideological motives contributes to the further drive toward Russia (B92, 2014).
To propagate those narratives and representations, the proxies that have been so instrumental in Russian information warfare particularly strive in Republika Srpska, due to the government’s tight control over local media. The main newspaper, Glas Srpske, reflects in its editorial line the government’s rhetoric and as such gives full exposure to Russian public diplomacy and propaganda. In 2022, the coverage of the “Day of Remembrance of the victims of the Ustaša crime and genocide” on the 1st of May stressed the attendance of the commemoration by the Russian and Chinese ambassadors and, in contrast, the absence of Western officials (Glas Srpske, 2022). The public TV channel, RTRS, as well as the galaxy of different information portals equally function as propaganda relays. They complement the Serbian-language avatar of Sputnik and Russia Today in spreading among the RS population narratives on Russia as the only reliable ally and on the West as fundamental adversity against the Serbs as a whole and the Republika Srpska in particular (RTRS, 2018).
Strengthening the tale of RS statehood
In the field of security, Russia’s assistance has been instrumental in terms of capacity-building, and until the war against Ukraine did not raise any particular concern among international policy-makers. Consistent with his project to create parallel institutions in Republika Srpska, including armed forces, Dodik started to militarise the RS police, an enterprise which has been openly backed and funded by Russia. In 2015, the RS Ministry of Interior and the Moscow police signed a memorandum of understanding, which paved the way for special training in the fields of anti-terrorism and repression of social movements (ATVBL, 2016). In addition, intelligence reports accused the Wagner group of training paramilitary groups beholden by Dodik, helping him strengthen his autocratic system of governance and raising important democratic concerns (Radio Slobodna Evropa, 2016). The connections between ultranationalist and potentially militarized Serb organizations, such as veteran associations, and their Russian counterparts must also be acknowledged. For the time being, they have mostly helped Dodik’s ritualised demonstrations of political might, like at the occasion of Dan Republike, when the local chapter of the Noćni vukovi (Night Wolves, a group of ultra-nationalist bikers) marched along Veterans of Republika Srpska, a veteran association extremely close to the SNSD. At this stage, it remains difficult to measure how much of the entity’s security apparatus they have already penetrated (Radio Slobodna Evropa, 2023). If the political crisis escalated in BiH, those organisations would be particularly helpful to stir armed violence under the guise of plausible deniability, as happened during the 1992–1995 war.
Russia is also expected to deliver in other sectors, especially since Dodik has alienated any other possible partners, especially from the EU (bar Hungary). Thanks to investments in the former Yugoslav energy companies and infrastructures, when Zarubezhneft has brought the Brod oil refinery in 2007, it has offered to the entity beneficial gas and oil deals (Tepavcevic, 2015). Since then, Russian investment in the entity’s energy sector kept on growing. In 2015, it was agreed that Gasprom would supply RS directly with gas imports, bypassing Sarajevo in the process. Most recently, in 2022, Dodik came back from the Saint-Petersburg International Economic Forum announcing that RS and Russia will jointly build two gas-fired power plants through investments worth a combined 1.5 billion euros (BNE Intellinews, 2022). Russian omnipresence in the entity’s energy sector does not only ensure sufficient supplies, it also reinforces its autonomy from Sarajevo. This represents the silver lining of Russian economic policies in RS. The EU remains, by far, Bosnia’s main economic partner (Agenzija za statistiku Bosne Hercegovine, 2022), but Russia, at a minimum cost, creates the illusion that thanks to Russia RS could reach economic autonomy. The Protocol signed in Saint-Petersburg also included technical support for middle-sized companies, the construction of an international airport in Trebinje, development of the sports and tourist complex “Jahorina” and opening of direct air links between Banja Luka and Moscow. In May 2022, during a research fieldwork carried out in Banja Luka, a RS official opened up to me about the project to make of Republika Srpska a new touristic spot for dental and plastic surgery, in order to attract wealthy Russians who could fly in through Serbia. He added that academic chairs funded by large Russian companies were expected to contribute to the development of the Universities of Banja Luka and Istočno Sarajevo (Interview, 2022).
Patron-client relations between RS and Russia also rely on an array of non-state actors supporting the nationalising project of the entity’s leadership, by nurturing a Bosnian-Serb identity whose fundaments make it closer to Russia. The overarching narrative on Russia as the Slavic and Orthodox great brother transpires from the operation of soft power carried out by the Russian Orthodox Church in the entity. In 2018, the consecration of a Church and cultural centre in the centre of Banja Luka was celebrated by officials from both sides as “bearing witness to the spiritual and cultural intimacy of the Russian and Serb peoples” (Balkan Insights, 2018). The Russian Orthodox Church can also count on its Serbian counterpart to expand the outreach of its discourse throughout Republika Srpska, notably by building or renovating places of worship throughout the entity. As an example, the Association for Serbian-Russian Friendship and the Unity of Orthodox Peoples has undertaken the construction of a monastery in Ritešić, conceived as “a Serbian-Russian spiritual centre”. Among the first visitors of the Monastery, in 2018, were the Noćni vukovi (Žurnal, 2020).
Delivering revisionism and secession
Ultimately, Russia’s recent role as RS patron is mutually beneficial for all parties involved. In Putin, Dodik has found a non-silent partner for challenging the regional paradigm of conflict resolution and security, and most critically, the Dayton Peace Agreement. Since Dodik has started to push for a separatist agenda, he has been violently targeting the institutions and mechanisms responsible for implementing and supervising the peace process and demanding their closure and the end of international intervention in BiH. For years, he has especially denounced the action of the Office of the High Representative, which he accused of “destroying the Dayton Peace Agreement and the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina” by passing reforms “granting of additional capacity to Bosnia and Herzegovina” (Glas Srpske, 2020).
Having first only paid lip service to this rhetoric, Russia eventually undertook after 2014 very concrete political and diplomatic actions to back Bosnian Serb revisionism at the international level, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea (Glas Srpske, 2010). Abstaining the same year to extend the EUFOR mandate, Russian representatives started to distance themselves from all peace implementation mechanisms, including the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), which is in charge of supervising the peace process. They refused to condemn Republika Srpska for organising the 2016 referendum. It intensified this process with an official note to the High Representative on 28 July 2021, announcing that it would no longer participate in the PIC meetings as long as they will be chaired by the High Representative. In November 2022 at the UN Security Council, Russia along with China conditioned the vote in favour of the extension of the EUFOR mandate to the rephrasing of the text to exclude mentions of the OHR, denying its legitimacy (UNSC, 2022). This move paved the way for the deepening of the institutional crisis in BiH, which reached another low after the RS National Assembly voted to opt out of the Bosnian armed forces, judiciary, health and tax systems, and pledged to instate their own. In another letter, on 17 February 2022, a week before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia also announced that it would not contribute to the funding of the OHR any longer (OHR, 2022). The decision clearly marks a very open and concrete alignment on Dodik’s position and a strong revisionist stance and makes Putin an asset to the Bosnian-Serb secessionist enterprise by weakening the ability to enforce the Dayton Accords.
What matters for the RS leadership is not only that Russia will attack the peace agreement per se. Russia has proven the only great power willing to uphold what Dodik and the Bosnian-Serb nationalist parties have been claiming in the last decade: the status of država (state), for Republika Srpska (RTRS, 2023). Again, from mostly theoretical in the beginning, Russian endorsement of Bosnian-Serb aspirations to statehood became extremely concrete, with actions that entails Russia recognizing RS as a state within a state. For instance, in Spring 2022, a decree from the Russian prime minister announced the opening of a diplomatic office in Banja Luka, with a status equal to the Sarajevo-based Embassy (Radio Slobodna Evropa, 2022). The symbolic aspect of setting up a secondary embassy is significant in a context where Dodik is constantly pledging to carry out a referendum on Bosnian-Serb self-determination. In early 2023, Dodik carried out a PR operation campaign on Russian media, presenting the future of RS as deeply similar to the trajectory of the Donbas breakaway entities (N1, 2023). It illustrates the strong convergence of interests between Russia and RS and between Putin and Dodik’s political agenda, and how Bosnian-Serb separatism benefits from Russia’s interference in the political crisis in BiH.
Ultimately, Republika Srpska has found in Russia a much more powerful and daring patron than its historical one, Serbia. Rumour has it that the proximity between Dodik and Putin caused tensions between the Bosnian-Serb leader and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (Balkan Insight, 2021). While all three parties publicly denied, Vučić attempts a balancing act between the West and Moscow since the beginning of the war against Ukraine, including his firm refusal to join international sanctions and at the same time posturing as a conciliator and guarantor of stability and security in BiH. In April 2022, a delegation of high-level Serbian officials, including the President, visited Banja Luka officially to discuss future economic partnerships. At this occasion, Vučić declared that he discouraged Dodik’s to move forward with forming an RS army and cooled off the secession-mongering spirit among the Bosnian-Serb leadership (B92, 2022). It becomes very clear that Serbia will not cross the Rubicon and help RS secede if it eventually breaks away. The need for a stronger and more daring patron starts to show to Dodik in order to preserve his ethnocratic regime and perpetuate the capture of state-resources in the entity. Coincidental with Putin’s search for new clients and allies to weigh against European sanctions following the annexation of Crimea, the more separatism grew vocal in Republika Srpska and the more Russian interference grew tangible, the more it was encouraged by Dodik. Having secured a patron like Russia gave Dodik wings, since he announced the interruption, on March 23, of all diplomatic contacts with the UK and US embassies that imposed sanctions against him and other members of RS leadership (Balkan Insights, 2023).
What’s in for Russia?
The patron-client relations between Russia and Republika Srpska rely on mutual benefits and their structural dynamic is not one-sided. A consensus emerged on the fact that Russian power projection in the region is mostly designed to deter “the West” from meddling into Russia’s zone of influence by demonstrating important leverage and capacities in Europe. To do so, a companion like Dodik proves extremely useful. He embodies a limited but efficient channel to counter European and US influence in the region, and to block the process of EU and NATO membership of BiH. Indeed, Dodik has repeatedly vetoed within the Bosnian central institutions reforms that could enhance those processes, in coherence with Russian threats on “consequences” to be expected if BiH decided to join NATO and critics over the obtention of the EU candidate status. Moreover, RS representatives generously used their right to veto to prevent Bosnia-Herzegovina to vote resolutions calling on Russia to withdraw its military forces from Crimea and to end the occupation of Ukrainian territory at the UN General Assembly, or to join the EU sanction mechanisms against Russia. This is why Russia has every interest in backing nationalist parties, including the SNSD, but also the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in BiH, vocally calling for a third, Croat ethnoterritorial entity; all these forces firmly oppose any reform of the decision-making process in the central BiH institutions.
Beyond the concrete case of Republika Srpska, the Russian Federation has historically endorsed the role of patron-state for breakaway entities, in order to constitute and constantly expand a galaxy of clients instrumental to its influence-seeking strategy (Malyarenko & Wolff, 2019). Dodik’s Republika Srpska has become one of the most turbulent. As an aspiring de facto state with an authoritarian regime constantly waving the threat of secession since 2008, Republika Srpska represents a golden opportunity for Russia. Supporting Dodik’s bids for secession means for the Kremlin to gain leverage in the Western Balkans, considered the EU’s backyard, by stirring conflict. It is using its position of third party to the Dayton Peace Agreement and its status at the UN Security Council to challenge the sovereignty of the state of BiH, and regional peace and stability (Bechev, 2019).
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