Nationalism and authoritarianism in the Balkans

by BYRON CLARK. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

Milorad Dodik, president of the “Republika Srpska” entity within Bosnia

The violence that occurred in the western Balkans in the 1990s has shaped the region’s politics to this day. An uneasy peace has been maintained but as Russia acts on its imperial ambitions in Ukraine Putin’s support of groups in the Balkans who glorify the war criminals who committed atrocities against the region’s Muslim populations and harbour desires for ethnostates means that violence could once again erupt.

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia into nation states, ethnically-Serb separatists in the new state of Bosnia carried out a genocide of the predominantly Muslim Bosniak population with the goal of creating a Greater Serbia in the region. Those events gave the world the euphemism “ethnic cleansing” and led to the deaths of over 100,000 people. The conflict ended with an agreement that saw Bosnia governed by a tripartite presidency representing the country’s three major ethnic groups- Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb-dominated autonomous region, denies that any genocide took place, describing it as a “myth” and a “deception.” He has long been advocating for the region’s secession, to become part of Serbia.

Dodik has chastised members of the European Parliament for not opposing the “Bosnian Islamic state” he believes Muslim Bosniaks are planning.[1] At the meeting where he made those comments he was echoed by Dragan Čović, leader of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina political party, and a former member of the tripartite presidency, who joined Dodik in blaming Bosniaks for trying to establish “a unitary Islamic state”.

In February Dodik moved to pull the Republika Srpska out of key national institutions, such as the tax system and judiciary. He also announced plans to set up a separate military, something the Washington Post described as essentially resurrecting the forces that carried out the massacre of eight thousand people in Srebrenica in 1995. Over the past fifteen years Dodik has cultivated a relationship with Russia, which has served the interests of both his secessionist movement and the Kremlin.[2] Last December, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to support Bosnian Serbs in their disputes over power-sharing. Russian investment in Republika Srbska has ensured a cheap source of raw resources for Moscow, and established a useful strategic offshore satellite. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU almost doubled the peacekeeping force in Bosnia as a precautionary measure.[3]

The Biden administration had announced new sanctions against Dodik in January, accusing him of “corrupt activities” and undermining the U.S.-brokered Dayton accord which ended the war in 1995 and established the tripartite presidency.

Writing in 2014, Bosnian political scientist Jasmin Mujanović described Dodik as “Moscow’s man in Banja Luka”.[4] In light of the situation in Ukraine Dodik has advocated for Bosnia-Herzegovina to remain neutral in the conflict – a decision that requires the backing of all three presidency members.[5] The two others, Šefik Džaferović and Željko Komšić support sanctions against Russia. Dodik has accused them of toppling the constitution and hence the state, with Komšić responding that Dodik was implementing Putin’s plan of destabilisation.[6] This view was shared by Džaferović, who told The Guardian that Dodik:

is encouraged in his behaviour by Russia, which is always keen on showing that it can destabilise the soft underbelly of the EU and NATO. These are dark days for Europe and the whole world. We are witnessing something that is horrible. We saw a similar horror here in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s.[7]

Neighbouring Serbia is “definitely back on the path towards strongman rule” according to Jasmin Mujanović. Aleksandar Vučić has served as president since 2017. Early in his term he was the target of protest as a result of clamping down on free media and on NGOs critical of the government, and by labelling large segments of Serbia’s parliamentary opposition as anti-state elements. Vučić has attempted to maintain close relationships with both Western Europe and Putin’s Russia.[8] Tabloids loyal to him have spent the last five years spreading pro-Putin propaganda. Protesters waving Russian flags and carrying pictures of Putin have marched in Belgrade to demonstrate their support for Russia.

Far-right groups have been among the protesters. Damnjan Knezevic of the People’s Patrol spoke at one rally wearing the letter Z on his jacket, the letter has become a symbol of support for Russian militarism. The Kremlin-backed bikers’ club Night Wolves also participated, as did a number of individuals previously accused of fighting alongside Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Mladen Obradovic, leader of the banned Serbian far-right group Obraz described Russia as “a beacon of freedom.” claiming that “That is why we, the Serbs, have an obligation to stand by our Mother Russia.”

“Since they first went out into the streets, they have always advocated for ‘Mother Russia’ and claimed that Serbia belongs with Russia, not in the European Union,” Darko Sper told BIRN (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network).[9] Sper is an activist with the NGO coalition Civic Vojvodina who have organised rallies in support of Ukraine.

The crowd at the rally chanted the names of Vladimir Putin and Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic, who is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the Srebeneca genocide.

“The Serbian people have not forgotten all that Vladimir Putin did for the survival of the Serbian people,” claimed Srdjan Letic, who travelled from the Bosnian town of Brcko to attend the rally in Belgrade. Letic is the leader of Sveti Georgije. The group claims that they carry out humanitarian work- with the help of two cars presented as a gift by the Russian embassy in Bosnia. Notably Letic was convicted in 2007 of falsifying banknotes and trading in weapons.

Russians wanting to leave the country have found Serbia to be one of the only options on the continent, with regular flights leaving Russia for Serbia at a time when other countries have banned them, but emigrants aiming to flee the regime are then finding themselves among some of its strongest supporters. “Some locals tell me they support Russia when they learn I am from Russia.” a former travel agent now living in Belgrade told AFP. “They say it to express their support, but it turns out this support extends to supporting Putin and his actions and the war.”[10]

Vučić’s regime has backed the U.N. resolution that deploring Russia’s aggression, but rejected sanctions on Russia. A stance Politico described as trying “to take his balancing act to a new level”.[11] The relationship between Russia and Serbia predates Vučić. In 1999 Russia opposed NATO’s bombing of Serbia (Putin has more recently cited the NATO bombing, which did not have U.N. Security Council approval, in attempting to justify his military incursion into Ukraine.)

NATOs intervention in Kosovo, where Serbia was persecuting the predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanian population arguably prevented a repeat of the genocide that had occurred in neighbouring Bosnia four years prior. “The atrocities of the 1990s had taught many American opinion makers that they could not simultaneously demand both an end to genocide and a policy of non-intervention.” wrote Samantha Power in A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. “Diplomacy without the meaningful threat of military force had too often failed to deter abuse”. NATO bombing in Serbia was not done for purely humanitarian reasons, according to Power, and likely would not have occurred without the perceived threat to US interests.

Kosovo president Vjosa Osmani told The Guardian that Russia is attempting to destabilise the western Balkans.[12] Prime Minister Albin Kurti believes that the country is significant in Putin’s plan to expand Russian power in Europe “He wants the state of Kosovo to fail in order to show that NATO success was temporary, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In early March the Bosnian branch of the Night Wolves organised a rally in Trebinje in southern Bosnia. Deputy leader Goran Tadic – who is the official driver of Republika Srpska energy and mining minister Petar Djokic – was in attendance, carrying a Russian flag. The Night Wolves also had a presence at a rally in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, alongside members of the Serb nationalist Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement. The original Chetniks were Serbian nationalists that collaborated with the Nazis in fighting communist Partisans during the second world war. The Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement has been accused of financing the travel of volunteer fighters from the Balkans to eastern Ukraine. Russia wants to maintain a sphere of influence in eastern Europe, a buffer zone between the Russian Federation and the countries in the European Union (and/or NATO) regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine, it will likely continue to exert influence over the nations of the Balkans via its support for Serbian nationalists and far-right groups, this could be disastrous for the region’s minority Muslim population.


[1] https://www.boell.de/en/2022/03/28/eu-must-stop-appeasing-putins-puppets-bosnia

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/lidiakurasinska/2022/02/23/as-the-world-watches-ukraine-possibility-of-disintegration-looms-in-bosnia/?sh=190f0a45410d

[3] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/bosnias-pro-russian-serb-leader-tried-stop-countrys-un-vote-report-2022-03-03/

[4] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/moscows-man-in-banja-luka/

[5] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/dodik-ready-to-block-bihs-decision-to-join-eus-russia-sanctions/

[6] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/dodik-tries-to-push-for-bihs-neutral-stance-towards-russia/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/11/russia-may-pressure-serbia-to-undermine-western-balkans-leaders-warn

[8] https://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-russia-serbia-aleksandar-vucic/

[9] https://balkaninsight.com/2022/03/10/at-pro-russian-balkan-rallies-a-whos-who-of-the-far-right/

[10] https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/03/25/fleeing-putin-russians-resettle-in-pro-kremlin-serbia-a77078

[11] https://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-russia-serbia-aleksandar-vucic/

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/11/russia-may-pressure-serbia-to-undermine-western-balkans-leaders-warn

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