A Nagorno-Karabakh Scenario in the Balkans?

Courtesy of legio09

As the fighting rages in the South Caucasus, the citizens of another frozen conflict watch with unease.

Nagorno-Karabakh is back in the news. The largely forgotten Soviet-era ‘frozen conflict’ is anything but frozen these days. No one really knows who fired the first shot, nor is this important anymore. The fact of the matter is that fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan spiraled out of control literally overnight.

Just across the Black Sea and the Balkan Mountains, Bosnians are preparing to mark the 25th anniversary of the US-brokered Dayton Accords. The times are uneasy and some wonder whether their own ‘frozen conflict’ might flare up like the one in Nagorno-Karabakh. After all, the two conflicts are very similar.

Two Frozen Conflicts

Bosnia and Serbia on one side, and Armenia and Azerbaijan on the other, were all member states within larger communist supranational states (Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, respectively). Historical antagonism existed between Serbs and Bosniak Muslims (Bosnia’s majority population) and between Armenians and Azeris. Both Orthodox Christian populations perceived their Muslim neighbours as the physical remnants of an oppressive Ottoman Empire. This antagonism was kept under the lid during communist rule, only to explode in the late 1980s when both communist regimes were in freefall. In both cases, the Orthodox Christian population living in a Muslim-majority country wanted to secede and territorially adjoin their neighbouring Orthodox Christian brethren. Ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh wanted to break away from Azerbaijan and join neighbouring Armenia, while ethnic Serbs from Bosnia wanted to secede and join neighboring Serbia.

In both cases, a referendum on independence was held which was boycotted by the opposing side: ethnic Azeris boycotted the Nagorno-Karabakh referendum in 1991, while Bosnian Serbs boycotted Bosnia’s referendum in 1992. Bloody wars soon erupted. During them, Armenia preferred to keep Nagorno-Karabakh as a nominally independent republic – the Republic of Artsakh. Serbia also preferred to keep the Republic of Srpska nominally independent during the war, instead of incorporating it outright into its territory. This was done to avoid allegations of aggression and maintain a stronger negotiating position. Today, Nagorno-Karabakh is a self-declared republic and supported by neighbouring Armenia, just like the Republic of Srpska is – though part of Bosnia – highly autonomous and financially and politically backed by Serbia.

The same foreign actors have been involved in both examples. While Turkey backs Azerbaijan due to its old ‘one nation, two states’ policy and its century-old grudge against Armenia, Russia maintains tight links with Armenia, including two military bases stationing 5,000 troops. In the case of the Balkans, Turkey backs Bosniak Muslims and a unified Bosnia, while Russia backs Serbia and Bosnian Serb secessionists. Russia has sent military advisors to both Serbia and the Republic of Srpska, and sells military hardware to both.

Whatever Happened to the ‘International Presence’ in Bosnia?

Today, Bosnia is more vulnerable to malign foreign influence than ever before. Namely, after the US diplomatically ended the Bosnian War, 60,000 NATO soldiers were sent to Bosnia and tasked with keeping the peace. The peacekeeping mission was eventually outsourced to the EU which has been reducing its military footprint to just a few hundred. The EU’s force today, known as EUFOR, is a watered-down version of what NATO’s peacekeeping force was and does not seem to instill much confidence in the general public. On the other side, the EU’s diplomatic approach towards Bosnia and the region wrongly assumed that offering Balkan countries a distant prospect of joining the Union would neutralise nationalism and inter-ethnic animosities. Its overemphasis on the normative harmonisation of Balkan legal frameworks with that of the EU was not very enticing to the region’s political leaders. A vacuum was formed after the American retreat from the Balkans and the EU’s diplomatic inertia. In turn, Russia and China interpreted this as an opportunity to make inroads with their bureaucracy-free, top-down approach and personal relations with local strongmen.

Despite simmering social frustration, rising authoritarianism and superpowers vying for influence, the EU does not seem to be changing course. The international community’s high representative in Bosnia, Austrian-born Valentin Inzko – despite having the ‘Bonn Powers’ to sack uncooperative and obstructive politicians – has at most only expressed his ‘concern’ over deteriorating security developments in the country. As such, he is subject to much mockery among Bosnians.

At present, Bosnia’s political and security situation is so precarious that the country is not even able to handle a relatively small presence of migrants and refugees. The Republic of Srpska, run by Serb nationalists and emboldened by neighbouring Belgrade and Moscow, acts like a state of its own and refuses to align its policies with the capital, Sarajevo. Take the migrant crisis for example: Milorad Dodik, the hardline Serb member of the presidency, refuses to join the other two members and deploy Bosnia’s armed forces along the country’s eastern border to help stem the illegal crossings of migrants from Serbia. Then, on a local level, the Republic of Srpska – which is ruled by Dodik’s party – refuses to house any migrants on its territory and instead pushes them across the invisible border to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Who Would Want Instability in Bosnia?

Both Bosnian and Western analysts point the finger at Russia. Administratively, Bosnia is divided into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Bosniak Muslims are a majority, and the Republic of Srpska, where Orthodox Christians dominate. The country’s convoluted ethnic makeup and government composition gives significant autonomy to both political entities, governing 51% and 49% of the country respectively. This means that secessionist Serbs who run the Republic of Srpska not only have large autonomy, but a militarised police force and political leverage to block state institutions – since a consensus within the tripartite presidency is needed for any foreign policy moves or state-level decisions.

Such a structure is ideally suited for foreign meddling, particularly when a foreign actor favours one specific side and wants to bring the entire country to a halt. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been openly backing Dodik, who in turn does not shy from making it known that his ultimate goal is for the Republic of Srpska to join neighbouring Serbia.

Russia’s influence in Bosnia is further strengthened through the work of non-governmental organisations and friendship associations, Serbian and Russian Orthodox churches, motorbike gangs such as the ‘Night Wolves’ and various murky businessmen linked to the Kremlin. In a way, Putin sees Dodik as a guarantee that Bosnia will not join NATO or the EU. By supporting a war-mongering secessionist, Moscow knows it can extract concessions from the West regarding Ukraine, Georgia and even Belarus. It is also a tit-for-tat move aimed to take revenge on the EU and NATO for their perceived ‘intrusion’ into Russia’s neighborhood. It is very telling that over the past five years, Russia has supported a highly divisive referendum in the Republic of Srpska on its national day (deemed illegal by Bosnia’s constitutional court). It is also blamed for a failed coup d’état in Montenegro just before its NATO accession, and it has sought to derail the name-change agreement between North Macedonia and Greece (which, again, paved the way for North Macedonia to join NATO).

Stability Lies in the Transatlantic Alliance

Pre-existing frozen conflicts have become an important instrument of Russia’s increasingly revisionist foreign policy. Meddling in Bosnia strengthens Russia’s hand in Europe should it want to create chaos in the EU’s soft underbelly. Judging from examples of similar frozen conflicts, such as Transnistria, Ossetia, Abkhazia and Donbass, Russia’s approach seems to be tactically adapted to the conflict nature of each particular country, having the sole aim of keeping the affected states in a perpetual state of controlled instability.

Balkan analysts have been warning that Moscow’s malign influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina could only aggravate the situation after the recent elections in Montenegro, where pro-Serbian and pro-Russian political parties gained the most seats to the detriment of pro-Western forces.

Bosnia’s early post-war optimism and a robust NATO military presence created an opening that breathed life into the fragile peace among warring factions inside Bosnia and across the region. The Dayton Accords have not atrophied as some claim; rather, the country’s power-sharing arrangements seem to have proved easy to abuse. Additionally, Bosnia has become victim to a declining ‘Pax Americana’ and a deepening crisis of the European security order.

The West needs to aggressively respond to this new Russian posture. A fast-tracked membership to NATO’s security umbrella and greater Western involvement, both of a political and military nature, would spell stability for Bosnia and the entire region.

Harun Karčić is a journalist and political analyst based in Sarajevo covering foreign influences in the Balkans.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Explore our related content