China fans the flames of ethnic politics in the Balkans

The fragile geopolitical nature of the Balkans has allowed Russia to constantly undermine attempts at Western integration in the region.

While foreign interference is nothing new in the underbelly of Europe, it has always been limited to regional powers and the United States. But China’s recent collaboration with Russia to support ethnic separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) reveals that Beijing is happy to defy the West and highlight EU and NATO vulnerabilities in Europe. .

If Western pressure on Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang and Taiwan increases, China’s enhanced coordination with Russia will further erode the West’s delicate balancing act in the Balkans.

Late last year, the current Serbian member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, escalated his claims that Republika Srpska, the country’s Serb-populated entity, would demand a referendum on the independence.

BiH’s tripartite presidential system, established by Western states in 1995 as part of the Dayton Peace Accord, gave Dodik considerable power. Along with its calls to “withdraw from the numerous agreements reached after the civil war”, the Republika Srpska parliament passed a series of laws allowing the territory, among other things, “to form its own parastatal institutions and its own army by May”. . [2022].”

A few days after Dodik announced the possibility of secession, the American envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, met with the leader of Republika Srpska. After the threat of sanctions was raised, Dodik said, “To hell with the sanctions. I’ve been there before. If you want to talk to me, then stop threatening me,” revealing his growing contempt for American diplomacy.

Republika Srpska’s Statehood Day, held on January 9, commemorates its declaration of independence from Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. Although the observance of the day has been deemed unconstitutional by a supreme court ruling in 2015, the Bosnian Serbs continued to “mark the anniversary of the founding” of the Republika Srpska.

In addition to growing calls for independence within Republika Srpska, this year’s parade also brought together representatives from Chinese and Russian embassies (alongside Serbian officials), prompting immediate criticism from Sarajevo.

But the real intention of Russia and China was to send a message to the West. Rising tensions around Ukraine, Taiwan and Xinjiang have prompted Moscow and Beijing to exploit Western geopolitical vulnerabilities.

The January 9 affair was just the latest move by Russia and China to challenge the West in BiH.

Last July, Russia and China drafted a UN Security Council resolution which declared that the office of the Bosnian High Representative, who oversees the implementation of the 1995 peace agreement in the region and who is a position dominated by officials from Western Europe and the United States, were no longer needed. . Although the resolution was rejected, it was clearly a blow to Western efforts to regulate divisions within BiH.

And while Moscow and Beijing are keen to discredit existing international mechanisms that govern Bosnian affairs, their efforts to help Republika Srpska become a state are bolstered by the precedent already set by the West.

In addition to supporting the self-determination of various states in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the United States and the European Union supported Montenegrin and Kosovar bids for independence in 2006 and 2008 respectively.

For years, Dodik was able to count on the support of Moscow to bolster his secessionist aspirations. But sensing the benefits of a partnership with China, Dodik has increased his public support for Beijing.

In June last year, Dodik said Bosnia and Herzegovina’s foreign ministry was “not authorized to sign a joint statement regarding [the] human rights situation in China.

While criticizing the ministry’s action as “inadmissible and unacceptable”, he expressed his support for China, saying, “I fully support the territorial integrity and integrity of the People’s Republic of China, as well as all actions it undertakes to preserve its sovereignty”. .”

Fears persist that an attempt at independence by Republika Srpska could fuel a new wave of violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Alongside Republika Srpska forces, foreign volunteers, provocateurs and mercenaries could also be sent under the guise of travel or flown into the region in the event of a conflict.

Members of the Night Wolves, a Russian motorcycle gang that fought in Ukraine, marched with the Republika Srpska armed forces during January 9 celebrations and made frequent road trips to the region in previous years. Several hundred fighters from Republika Srpska and Serbia have visited Ukraine in turn in recent years.

Western attempts to resolve the instability by force also run the risk of confrontation with the Serbian and Russian military. Emboldened by its actions in Ukraine and Syria over the past decade, the Russian military is also a far more formidable and capable adversary than it was in the 1990s.

Western populations have largely lost their appetite for intervening in civil wars – not to mention the specter of a new military confrontation with a nuclear power like Russia in another theater in Europe. Any indication of military support from China would further dampen Western willingness to intervene.

Moreover, the growing calls for the independence of the Republika Srpska would further set back the expansion of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the Balkans.

Last October, Dodik said in an interview with German news site Der Spiegel that “the Western Balkans have never been so far from the EU [membership] than they are now. This reflects the idea that while Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU membership depends on the treatment of Serbs in the country, Serbia is also unlikely to join the EU if the institution improperly prevents a secession attempt. of the Republika Srpska.

A move towards secession and the ensuing unrest also has the potential to unravel the entire fragile post-Yugoslavian ecosystem. In addition to encouraging Croatian calls for independence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the secession of the Republika Srpska could incite the Albanians of North Macedonia and the Serbs of northern Kosovo to multiply their own attempts at independence.

While agreements on local self-government, territorial autonomy and power-sharing in national institutions have been common conflict management strategies in divided countries, they have also given Republika Srpska the foundations of independence.

With growing support from Moscow and Beijing, Republika Srpska’s attempts at secession have become much more realistic. The recent declaration by Russia and China of a “limitless” partnership between these countries, among other areas of cooperation, has called for an end to NATO enlargement.

Coupled with the efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is clear that complicating NATO and EU growth in Europe is a key area where Russia and China can fend off the West and are likely to continue to do so. do in the future.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, who provided it to Asia Times.

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