The Russian-Ukrainian war exacerbates the wounds of the Balkans
In the Western Balkans, peace and prosperity are not what you take for granted – and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only brought back memories of what went wrong for some, mainly their point of view, and good for others. Much has changed in the region since the bloodshed of the 1990s, which saw millions of people lose their homes, thousands flee to Europe and hundreds of thousands dead.
While Croatia and Slovenia, which were among the first to declare their independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, became full members of the European Union and NATO, Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro, which seceded from Serbia in 2006, did not join the Alliance.
Meanwhile, the non-bloc trio of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is considering EU membership and, in the case of Sarajevo and Pristina , to NATO.
A quick glance offers promising prospects for the development of the region. But with ethnic divisions still prevalent in the region, with cities like Mostar divided into Croat and Bosnian parts, Banja Luka and northern Kosovo being dominated by ethnic Serb communities, Serbia’s historic grudges and the creeping influence of Moscow, it seems that the post-war configuration is slowly beginning to wear thin.
In January 2022, as Russia continued to rally its troops to launch an all-out war in Ukraine, the US Treasury sanctioned Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik of Republika Srpska, accusing him of attempts to dismantle the Dayton Accords of 1995, which ended the war in Bosnia.
A few months later, Bosnian Serbs took to the streets of Banja Luka, the administrative center of Republika Srpska, in response to the government’s decision to suspend a law relating to land property rights. During the protest, local war veterans reminded the crowd that the fighters had created the Republic with their blood, promising to count the heads of those who would be ready to defend the Republic of Srpska and inform Sarajevo of the outcome – which is hardly a positive promise in the Balkan codebook. Communication.
Meanwhile, during a UN session on April 20, Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister Donika Gërvalla-Schwarz accused Serbia and Russia of being the biggest threats to peace in the region. , noting that Russia was committing genocide in Ukraine – with North Macedonia also labeling it as such. .
In response, Serbia claimed that non-Albanian citizens, including Serbs, were discriminated against while Russia expressed concern over human rights abuses as Kosovo’s desire to create an army and joining NATO, a Russian obsession in recent months.
For Moscow, which sees the Western Balkans as another historical extension of itself and a bastion of Slavism and Orthodoxy, the pervasive tensions in the region, stoked by Russia’s mildly punished imperialist and genocidal ambitions in Ukraine, are only beneficial.
Especially since Serbia is always ready to play the anti-NATO card.
On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced that he would only condemn Russia’s recognition of the two landlocked Donbass republics if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced on television the controversial NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999.
Vučić’s demand for quid pro quo, all the more bizarre since Kyiv opposed the bombardment, illustrates Serbia’s inability to shed its past status as Yugoslavia’s power center or condemn figures like Ratko Mladić , the Colonel General who led the Army of Republika Srpska and is responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, with murals in Belgrade still dedicated to him.
The fact that Serbia has been an EU candidate country since 2009 has done little to dampen feelings reminiscent of power or to bury the Belgrade-Moscow axis fueled by China’s massive investments in the country and throughout the region.
While Belgrade refuses to join the sanctions introduced by the EU against Russia, let alone send tanks like Slovenia did, in 2014 and 2022, claiming that the West is punishing it for “its political Foreign Independent”, it has also strengthened its cooperation with the Russian military over the years. Since 2016, it has housed a Russian military base disguised as a humanitarian center.
He also unveiled the Russian Defense Ministry’s liaison office in Belgrade and held the “SHIELD 2022” demonstration at Pilot-Colonel Milenko Pavlović’s military airfield in Batajnica in April, unveiling modern jet fighters which, according to the he participant from Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, smells so good of kerosene.
While it is clear that the wounds of the past have not healed in this region steeped in history, the question of whether Serbia, its ethnic minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, or any other actor, both local and national, which the West The Balkans have in abundance, will try to restore the “great historical fairness” as Russia tries to do in Ukraine, is not clear.
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who continues to openly flirt with Russia and magnify his political prominence by claiming NATO allegedly wanted to kidnap him, has been sanctioned by the UK, alongside his ally Zeljka Cvijanovic, for his efforts “to undermine the legitimacy and functionality of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina” in April.
Meanwhile, the commander of the armed forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Senad Masovic, announced in April that Bosnia and Herzegovina will “very soon” receive new weapons, including javelins, amid threats made by the Russian envoy in the country to repeat its “special military operation” if Sarajevo wishes to become a member of NATO.
If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had gone quickly, as expected, the likelihood of a special blitzkrieg military operation taking place in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo or even Montenegro, where the new pro- West is weak and pro-Serb sentiment still strong, would have been higher.
Yet even in the current protracted version of the war, with restrictions yet to completely cripple the Russian economy and Serbia receiving warnings from the German parliament for its reluctance to join the sanctions, the risk of escalating tensions remain high.
Especially since the public appeal of the EU in Serbia has effectively failed. A poll carried out by Ipsos in April showed that only 35% of Serbs support joining the Union, 44% against it. In comparison, in 2009, 73% of the population supported membership.
With the EU and NATO, which only welcome with open arms the countries it likes, in the absence of a clear plan for the integration of the region into it, and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia proving that annoyance and resentment are capable of eclipsing reason, the situation could deteriorate at any moment.