The upcoming visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Bosnia and Herzegovina may set some things right – or make them even worse – coming only weeks ahead of polling day in the general elections.
While Russia will use the visit on September 2o and 21 to advance its already significant influence in Bosnia and the region, on the other side, all the local political parties and politicians will try to utilize it as well for their election campaigns.
One way or the other, therefore, Lavrov’s visit is likely to have an impact.
It comes in the context of Russia’s growing influence across the Balkans, which has expanded over the last decade, especially since Vladimir Putin became President in 2012.
This has been enabled by the steady decline of the EU and American presence in the region, and has been built mostly on the close links between Russians and Serbs in recent history.
Spoiler, opportunist, or something else:
Russian frustration with American policy in the Balkans has mounted since the US supported Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, and especially after the international debate about Kosovo was moved from the UN Security Council to the EU-led dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia in 2011, circumventing Russian participation.
In Bosnia, Russia started building its presence in February 2007, when the Russian state oil company, Zarubezhneft, purchased a majority stake in the Brod oil refinery, the Modrica motor oil plant and fuel retailer Petrol – all in Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska – for 121.1 million euros.
Moscow has repeatedly objected to Western interventions in Bosnia, and has warned that it could seriously destabilize the divided country if it wanted to do so.
In apparent retaliation to the EU and US for taking the lead in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Russia supported the Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, when he threatened to hold a referendum on the authority of Bosnia’s state judiciary in 2011 – which he only eventually cancelled under strong international pressure.
In November 2014, Russia’s representative in the UN Security Council abstained from voting for the regular annual extension of the mandate of the EU-led peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, “Althea,” which was seen as another sign that Russia intended to play a stronger, more negative, role in the country.
In subsequent years, Russia has played a “hot and cold” game with the West on Bosnia, sometimes softening and sometimes hardening its positions.
The changes made to these often inconsistent positions have usually reflected the state of play in the ongoing global chess match between Russia and the West – suggesting that Russia’s real strategic focus remained on the global scene rather than on Bosnia itself.
In 2016, Russia supported another of Dodik’s controversial referendum initiatives, on the subject of the Serb entity’s national day. Notably, the RS followed through on this vote, despite strong opposition from the West and even from Serbia.
That development showed that through Dodik, who has met Putin at least eight times in recent years, Russia has built up a strong position in Bosnia, which has overshadowed or even completely nullified the influence that the West was trying to establish over the RS through Serbia and its president, Aleksandar Vucic.
While many Western and local officials have complained about a Russian “spoiler” effect in both Bosnia and Serbia, Moscow has, however, been careful to discourage Dodik from pushing for the full independence of RS – which many experts believe would lead to a new armed conflict.
In December 2016 and again in June 2018, Russia signed up to communiqués of the Peace Implementation Council, PIC - the international body overseeing Bosnia’s Office of the High Representative, OHR - which have spelled out that Bosnia’s two entities “have no right to secede from BiH and only exist legally by virtue of the BiH Constitution”.
Several Bosnian Serb officials have said that Russian officials delivered the same message to Dodik directly as well.
Battle over who invited Lavrov first:
While the Kremlin’s messages have persuaded Dodik to tone down his hard-line rhetoric and initiatives in the past, the big question is whether Lavrov will deliver a similar message during his upcoming visit.
Even if he does, another question is whether that would do the trick, amid an increasingly complicated political scene, as well as a heated election campaign.
Throughout his stay, Lavrov’s every word and gesture will be dissected, scrutinized and then used – and misused – in the election campaign.
This politicization of the visit begun even before it started, as Bosnian politicians and media pundits exchanged theories and rumours about why Russia’s top diplomat had postponed his arrival date.
Lavrov had been due to visit on September 15 and 16, but, only one day before his arrival, the date was moved to September 21 and 22, for “technical” reasons.
Some media said this delay was as a protest, after Bosnia’s authorities in August denied entry to Russian author Zakhar Prilepin on security grounds; Prilepin is seen as close to the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
But others suspected that Lavrov delayed his visit to avoid attending the ceremony of laying the foundation stone for the new Russian religious and cultural centre in Banja Luka – to prevent Dodik from using it in his election campaign. [The outgoing RS President is standing for the Serb seat in the state presidency.]
A somewhat more modest ceremony took place on Monday, with representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Ambassador to Bosnia, Petar Ivancov, attending instead of Lavrov.
According to a Bosnian official, Lavrov’s plans for the visit have remained almost the same as original ones, apart from attending the ceremony at the new cultural centre.
The visit starts on Friday in Sarajevo with an informal meeting with Foreign Minister Igor Crnadak, who comes from the ranks of an RS opposition party, the Party of Democratic Progress, PDP.
On Saturday, after meeting Bosnia’s tripartite state presidency, he travels to Republika Srpska.
The impact of Lavrov’s visit will depend partly on the outcome to his meeting with the three-man state presidency, made up of Bosniak leader Bakir Izetbegovic – who has criticized Russia’s role in Bosnia – the Serbian member, Mladen Ivanic, who also comes from the RS opposition PDP party, and the Croatian leader, Dragan Covic, an ally of Dodik’s.
The latest high-level Russian visit to Bosnia, by Valentina Matviyenko, Speaker of the Russian parliament’s upper house in April, stirred tensions in Sarajevo.
While her visit was said to be a part of Russian efforts to improve relations with other Bosnian leaders, apart from Dodik, it achieved the opposite result.
In her speech to the state parliament, Matviyenko referred to the 1992-5 war in Bosnia as a civil war, which triggered predictably angry responses from Bosniak and Bosnian officials and media.
While Matviyenko could have avoided tensions by picking her words more carefully, Bosniak and Bosnian officials could have also made better use of the visit to promote bilateral business and trade relations instead of their own pre-election interests.
Either way, the row over her terminology showed how even one word can have a major impact on Bosnia’s frantic political scene.
Besides what emerges from his meetings in Sarajevo, the greatest effect of Lavrov’s visit will likely come about through his talks with Dodik on one side, and with Dodik’s main opponents, a bloc of Bosnian Serb opposition parties that are struggling to use the election to weaken or topple him.
Whether Lavrov can maintain a delicate balance between supporting the RS authorities while blocking Dodik's potentially more dangerous moves, remains to be seen.
It will not be easy, however, and the job will not be made any easier by the deeply divided political scene, especially in Republika Srpska.
The election campaign there has been marked by brutal mud-slinging, incidents and attacks on journalists as well as by the unsolved murder of an 21-year-old in Banja Luka.
This is why even the most basic question – who invited Lavrov to Bosnia – has become an issue in the election.
After Lavrov’s visit was officially confirmed few weeks ago, both Dodik and Crnadak insisted that they had invited him – and fought in public over whose invitation came first, and to whose invitation Lavrov had responded.
This question may seem irrelevant to the average onlooker, but is seen by some RS politicians as a possible make-or-break issue in the campaign.
This is why, some Bosnian Serb officials say, journalists from the RS’s main radio and TV station, RTRS – which is under Dodik’s control – and who will be covering Lavrov’s first press conference in Sarajevo – have been ordered to put out this question first.