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On 1 January 2021, Gazprom announced that it would begin supplying natural gas to Bosnia and Herzegovina through the newly built TurkStream pipeline. Such a move signals a serious change in dynamics between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Russia, and its implications are underestimated by actors across the spectrum.
In mid-December last year, the media reported that the Russian giant Gazprom had cut its supply of gas to Bosnia and Herzegovina by 50%. Other countries sharing the same pipeline, such as Hungary and Poland, did not experience the same reduction. The Russians were quick to ascribe the event to a technical error.
However, Europe’s experience of energy crises in Belarus in 2007, Georgia in 2008 and the two Ukrainian crises in 2009 and 2014 forces us to consider whether Russia is spreading the use of its energy weapon to the Balkans, in an effort to exert additional pressure on Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The start of Joe Biden's presidency in the US has generated a possible challenge to the status quo. Biden's campaign statement, and the subsequent letter from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, both call for constitutional reform. Moscow's growing anxiety in the Balkans is evident, and the new pipeline is part of its response to unfolding events.
Change in pipelines and gas distribution
Prior to TurkStream, Bosnia’s gas supply was secured via an interconnection point at Beregovo, passing through Ukraine and Hungary and then into Bosnia and Herzegovina – making the country completely reliant on Russian gas for its needs. BH Gas, the distributing company from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, had a receiving point in Hungary from which it distributed gas via Serbia to the entire Bosnian territory. However, late last year, Gazprom notified Bosnia that starting in 2021 its gas would be rerouted through TurkStream, with a receiving point in Zvornik, a city in the northeast of the country and part of the Republika Srpska entity.
The implications of such a change in gas supplies are significant for several reasons. In 2015, Gas Res, a company from Republika Srpska, signed a contract with Gazprom on supplying gas to consumers in the entity. In parallel, Gaspromet Pale, a company majority-owned by SerbiaGas, has managed – according to reports – to forcibly remove BH Gas meters in Zvornik and replace them with its own, thereby stripping the national distributor of any control points for gas flows in the country. Essentially, this means that 19 km of pipeline and gas distribution networks are outside the control of Bosnia’s state institutions.
Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the presidency, has advocated several times for a branch of TurkStream extending towards Republika Srpska. He has visited Moscow more than once for this reason, and has received the support of Serbian authorities in these endeavours.
With the backdrop of the recent talks about a replacement for the Office of the High Representative, the outright threats from Moscow against Bosnia should it try to join NATO, and the overall desire for constitutional reform, Russia’s gas is another weapon in its arsenal for achieving political gains through coercive economic means.
This set of activities, a level below conventional conflict, represents a hybrid security threat for Bosnia and Herzegovina – a Russian strategic-level effort to influence the governance and geostrategic position of the country. In this process, the use of gas as a tool by Russia has wider implications. Bosnia and Herzegovina, barring Serbia and Kosovo, is the only independent country in the western Balkans that remains outside of NATO. For Russia, it is imperative that this does not change, especially after North Macedonia and Montenegro joined the alliance. The accession of Bosnia would mean Russia losing access to ‘warm seas’. Such access does not necessarily imply that Russia needs to have boots on the ground, but rather that it needs loyal (or forced) allies located on ‘warm seas’, in this case the Adriatic.
The gas weapon in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Moscow’s use of the gas weapon has the direct goal of increasing the dependence of a recipient on Russian gas – in this case, Bosnia and its capital, Sarajevo. Yet, the gas weapon in itself is not purely connected to economic interests. For it to succeed, there need to be a number of elements that interact to create a larger whole.
The case for a strategic alliance between the entity of Republika Srpska and Russia that promotes and uses the gas weapon is clear. To begin with, Dodik sees Russia as a brotherly country of the Serbs, linked by common pan-Slavic and Orthodox roots through which they share deep cultural and spiritual connections. As a long-term Kremlin ally, he has also facilitated Russian economic interests in Republika Srpska, including in the energy sector. For example, the oil refinery in Brod is under the ownership of Russian state-owned company Zarubezhneft.
On the political front, Dodik’s continuous calls for secession from the Bosnian state are thoroughly supported by Russia. For Moscow, this is a strategy for undermining Bosnia’s stability, keeping it out of NATO and the Euro-Atlantic sphere. Painting the country as unsustainable and ethnically divided, while also halting any kind of constitutional reform required for NATO integration, could create a powder keg of potential new regional conflict.
Using the nationalist paradigm, Russia combines 'state nationalism' with anti-Western sentiment, creating an environment in which the gas weapon can be geopoliticised to achieve its strategic objectives. This also gives the Kremlin the opportunity to build state influence in the international arena through proxies like Republika Srpska, and makes the Serbian entity even more dependent on Moscow.
Diversifying from the gas weapon
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s geopolitical significance heavily outweighs its geographical size. The region also follows this case. The ‘global Balkans’, as former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski would name it – a region of constant unrest – calls for the mediation of powerful centres, each geared towards establishing hegemonic dominance over the region. In this framework, Bosnia, partly due to its position in the battle between East and West, and more so because of the recent activities of Russia, has become a geopolitical pole of significant importance.
In order to stop any kind of progress towards a truly independent, democratic and Euro-Atlantic-oriented Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to halt any kind of gravitation towards its rivals, Moscow will continue to vehemently oppose and block any moves made by Bosnia towards NATO and EU membership. Recent statements prove this. The gas weapon serves as a means for Moscow to achieve this objective, and projects that involve Russian companies in developing further gas infrastructure will inherently weaponise interdependence. But beyond gas dependence, this geopolitical framework creates other vested interests that deepen Moscow’s economic penetration and increase political corruption in the country.
The new gas route via TurkStream is now a reality that cannot be avoided, unless Bosnia and Herzegovina is willing to pay hefty fines to terminate international agreements. Moreover, there is a real threat of possible US sanctions towards Bosnia for involving itself in the implementation of the TurkStream project.
Therefore, while dealing with this reality, there are several concrete measures that should be adopted by Bosnia and its international partners to curb the effects of the Russian gas weapon and the newly built TurkStream:
1. The construction and integration of the Southern Interconnection between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, a gas pipeline proposed by BH Gas and Croatia’s Plinacro. The Interconnection would run from Split to Zagvozd, then to the border point of Imotski, and subsequently through Posušje to Travnik. A branch pipeline of 46 km would have to be built to Mostar by the Bosnian authorities, thus allowing the distribution of gas into Bosnia and Herzegovina from a different supply.
This follows the Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline project, and would connect the existing Bosnian network with the Croatian gas system. With a capacity of 1.5 bcm per year and the possibility of reverse flow, this interconnection is of strategic importance, as it would diversify the sources and routes for Bosnia’s supply, which currently depends entirely on the Russian-Serbian route. It would also connect Bosnia and Herzegovina with Western Europe, facilitating the liberalisation of the gas market in accordance with the EU Commission’s 3rd Energy Package.
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina should also look into the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline–Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TAP–TANAP) as part of the Southern Gas Corridor. The pipeline provides gas for several countries in Southeast Europe and in theory would be able to facilitate the supply of gas to Bosnia and Herzegovina, either through the Adriatic Sea or by land through Montenegro. Gas transported from the Caspian Sea would represent an alternative supply for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and would provide additional diversification from the traditional Russian gas route.
3. Subsequently, Bosnia and Herzegovina should also look into the possibility of expanding and diversifying its commercial gas market through LNG imports. The LNG terminal in Krk, Croatia has already received its third LNG cargo shipment from the US. The terminal is operational and has enough capacity to fulfil Bosnia’s gas needs at least partially, and the US would gladly replace Russian quotas with its own LNG.
Escaping further interdependence
In the past we have seen the depth of instability caused by the Russian gas weapon in Central and Eastern Europe. Today, the Nord Stream II pipeline serves the same purpose: it has created a rift in the transatlantic relationship that will irk friends and foes for the foreseeable future. The Balkans are no different. In the power vacuum of Bosnia, every little crack will be exploited by Moscow, and the energy sector remains an untapped field. It is in the interest of both the EU and Bosnia and Herzegovina to prevent any further expansion of Russia’s gas weapon and the consequent weaponisation of interdependence.
Ismet Fatih Čančar holds a BA in Economics from Sarajevo School of Science and Technology and the University of Buckingham, and an MA in International Political Economy from King's College London, where he studied under the Chevening scholarship programme awarded by the UK.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Photocreo Bednarek/Adobe Stock