After Ukraine, will the Balkans be next?

‘’We pray to God almighty that he protects the people of Ukraine, who are victims of oppression and injustice.’’

Those were the words of Bosnia’s Grand Mufti, Husein effendi Kavazović, who recently devoted a significant part of his Friday prayer sermon to the situation in Ukraine. It was indeed a rare example of Balkan Muslims praying for Orthodox Christian believers.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine strongly resonates in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina. By and large, Bosniak Muslims are able to identify with Ukrainians and draw a number of striking parallels between their own experience at the hands of Serbian forces and their Bosnian Serb proxies during the 1992-1995 genocide.

This is precisely why many in the region are watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with particular apprehension. Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing its biggest post-war political and security crisis and concern is growing about the evolution of the war in Ukraine and its possible repercussions on the region.

All eyes are on Milorad Dodik and what his next move will be. Dodik is an ultranationalist Serb leader who also serves as a member of Bosnia’s rotating tripartite Presidency. He has gained notoriety for his blatantly islamophobic and saber-rattling rhetoric over the past decade. As a staunch ally of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić, Dodik is in a position to veto Bosnia’s foreign policy – from preventing Bosnia in recognizing Kosovo’s independence to stalling its NATO accession. Over the past decade, hardly a month has passed by without him threatening to declare independence and break the country apart.

Even with the war in Ukraine raging, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been unable to reach a common position due to his opposition. He recently walked out of a joint Presidency session after his co-presidents Željko Komšić (Bosnian Croat) and Šefik Džaferović (Bosniak Muslim) declined his proposal for Bosnia to remain “neutral” towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They both individually strongly condemned Russia’s acts, but without the consent of all three members of the Presidency, they could not issue a joint statement or make any joint foreign policy decision.

Realizing the deteriorating security situation in Eastern Europe and its potential to have a spill-over effect on Bosnia, the EU’s peacekeeping force in the country (EUFOR) deployed another 500 troops as a precautionary measure. The EUFOR mission back in 2004 had 7,000 troops, but these numbers were downsized to 600 because of the country’s stable security environment. Now, the additional 500 troops will effectively double EUFOR’s presence and can quickly react should Dodik decide to declare independence and create another Abkhazia-like statelet.

Geopolitical and economic issues make the region particularly susceptible to repercussions linked to the ongoing aggression on Ukraine. In supermarkets especially in Sarajevo, there is already a shortage of flour – as locals have been stacking up on essentials. Many have also been renewing and extending their passports and scanning their university diplomas. Off the record, the well-informed among Bosnians believe that – should Ukraine fall – the most vulnerable spot in Western Balkans will be Bosnia. Vladimir Putin would support Dodik in achieving an independent Republic of Srpska, more so to poke the EU and NATO in their soft-underbelly and foment chaos in the region than because of his love for Balkan Serbs.

Serbia, despite having voted for the recent resolution of the UN’s General Assembly condemning Russia, remains the only European country along with Belarus that has not imposed sanctions against Russia. The two countries share vital economic and political interests. In fact, Air Serbia has increased its flights from Belgrade to Moscow since the war in Ukraine began. Not only does Russia have Serbia’s back diplomatically by vetoing the UN’s official recognition of Kosovo, it is also an indispensable energy partner: Serbia acquires almost 90% of its gas needs through Russia, while Croatia obtains two thirds, and Slovenia a half.

Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić, a staunch ally of Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, has been conspicuously treading a fine line between the East and West since the war began, going as far as to open his doors to Ukrainian refugees. Most media outlets in Serbia hailed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, lionizing Putin and glorifying the Russian army. Here it is perhaps worth mentioning that 83% of Serbians consider Russia a ‘friendly country’; no one would risk political suicide by hitting Moscow at this moment. On the other hand, the Serbian public took to the streets en masse in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and even chanted slogans supporting the notorious war criminal Ratko Mladić, who orchestrated the genocide of Bosniak Muslims. 

What awaits the Balkans?

The Ukraine war could have dangerous long-term consequences for the whole world, but particularly for the Western Balkans where cracks and fissures among ethnic groups run deep. The EU and NATO are new forms of political and security stability. However, entering NATO is perhaps more urgent at this moment than the EU. All Balkan countries – except for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo – are members of the Western military alliance. While Serbia has voiced its opposition to joining NATO, Bosnia is divided along ethnic lines with Bosniak Muslims and Croats leaning towards NATO and the EU while Bosnian Serbs gravitate towards Russia. Kosovo is home to the US Army’s Camp Bondsteel and its Western orientation both, society-wise and politically, is unquestionable. However, Kosovo might prove to be a bigger challenge than it seems as four NATO members – Romania, Spain, Greece, and Slovakia – do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

However, judging by Russia’s actions thus far, it is unlikely that they will parachute troops into Bosnia or Serbia and open another front since they already have loyal proxies and complete infrastructures to use in both countries. Whatever they decide to do in the future, it is likely to be done through Milorad Dodik and Aleksandar Vučić. It remains a possibility that Moscow sends military advisors and weapons to Bosnian Serbs or Serbia proper should the situation deteriorate since their security forces have already trained in the past.

Moscow will most likely continue to exacerbate existing tensions by supporting friendly political parties in Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia despite some of these countries having joined NATO. Having Moscow-friendly NATO countries will give Russia an edge against the Western military alliance. This was recently seen in the case of Hungary which refused to allow the stationing of NATO troops on its territory.

Russia’s attack against Ukraine seems to have given NATO a renewed sense of purpose and direction. This momentum should be utilized to contain the clear and present dangers facing the Western Balkans and to eliminate malign Russian and Chinese influence. 

Numerous previous EU-led attempts at moving the region forward have been hamstrung by EU bureaucrats who failed to understand the granular dynamic of the region and the cross-border power plays. However, this is no longer a political crisis but a rapidly deteriorating security situation which can only be contained by beefing up NATO’s presence in Bosnia particularly.

The Balkan region always produces more history than it can consume, and what happens in that region hardly ever stays there.