Following the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, the Balkans endured two devastatingly violent ethnic conflicts: one in Bosnia and one in Kosovo.
From 1992 to 1995, Bosnia was violently divided between the predominantly Muslim Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the quasi-states of Herzeg-Bosnia and Republika Srpska, led by Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs respectively.
In Kosovo, between February 1998 and June 1999, the forces of Serbia and Montenegro fought against the NATO-supported Kosovo Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian nationalist separatist militia.
Both conflicts were ruinous, not least in terms of their lasting, negative societal effects. The Bosnian War witnessed the first genocide in Europe since World War II: the Serb Army of Republika Srpska, under the command of Ratko Mladic, enacted ethnic cleansing against Muslim Bosniaks and ethnic Croats, culminating in the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 which saw over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys slaughtered.
In Kosovo, the actions of Serbia and its president, Slobodan Milosevic, were tantamount to crimes against humanity, a charge levied by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Peace, albeit frangible, was secured in Bosnia and Kosovo in 1995 and 1999, respectively.
Bosnia and Kosovo are now, once again, experiencing dangerously renewed tensions, in part, orchestrated by Moscow.
Acknowledgement of the tenuous peace and increasing interethnic agitations in the Balkans is fundamental to understanding how volatile the politics of Bosnia and Kosovo are, and why Russia could exploit the region’s tensions for its own political capital.
In Bosnia, ethnic Serbs are increasingly complaining of marginalization at the hands of the Bosniak majority. Republika Srpska, the Serb entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has accused the Bosniaks of disenfranchisement and disempowerment. Now, in response, is seeking autonomy and the ability to raise its own army.
The parallels between the causation of the Bosnian War in 1992 and the recent demands of Bosnian Serbs are worryingly stark. This time, however, the Serb population is looking directly to Moscow for support.
Bosnian Serb politician Vojin Pavlovic warns that “there will be no peace in [Bosnia and Herzegovina] as long as the international community defends and protects [the Bosniaks]”.
Ljubisa Cosic, the mayor of East Sarajevo, concurs with this view, fearing that “the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina will happen if the state continues [to act] like this”.
Pavlovic, in an interview with Sky News, likened NATO to a “criminal organization” and compared the alliance to the “Third Reich”, before suggesting he would much rather have the support of Russia than the United States and its allies.
Andi Hoxhaj, a fellow in Law and Policies of the European Union at the University of Warwick, argued that Russia’s increasing influence in the Balkans “is growing just as the region’s fragile peace is threatened”.
Russia currently funds energy investments in Bosnia through Republika Srpska, emboldening the position of the Serb population. With this implied support, the Serb President of Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, has announced plans to establish a new Serb army and has aligned with separatist movements which seek independence for Republika Srpska.
Security analysts are concerned that Dodik’s plans threaten the tenuous peace enjoyed in Bosnia, as Russia can avert attention away from its invasion of Ukraine by destabilizing the nation.
Republika Srpska’s pursuit of independence would require the support of powerful states, of which Russia is the ‘ally apparent’. For Russia, supporting the Bosnian Serb separatists provides the perfect opportunity to distract from its actions in Ukraine and further its sphere of influence, amidst the European Union’s exigent enlargement.
Moreover, the situation in Kosovo is equally bleak. Ethnic Serb protestors exacted blockades across the Kosovo-Serbian border on 31 July, which saw violence erupt over Pristina’s plans to require all Kosovans with Serbian ID and registration plates to replace them with official Kosovar documentation.
As the Kremlin looks to interfere in new conflicts, to avert the world’s attention from the devastation it has inflicted upon Ukraine, a seemingly arbitrary dispute over car registration plates and identification cards provides an ideal opening for obtrusion.
Tensions between ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and the government in Pristina have flared in a development which threatens both Kosovo’s national security and the future of the state’s independence.
Whilst petulant on the surface, the dispute could have ruinous consequences. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has consolidated his power in Serbia with a flagrant disrespect for democratic procedures and the rule of law, earning him the moniker of “little Putin”.
Notwithstanding, his motivation and capacity to act, like his counterpart, should not be underestimated. Belgrade maintains close relations with Moscow, compounding fears that Vucic could enable Russian interference, to both his and Putin’s advantage.
The Kosovo number plate crisis saw Russia spread disinformation about ‘Kosovan aggression’, in a bid to spark ethnic conflict between Serbs and Albanians.
Russia’s propaganda operation saw falsified reports of Serbian military movements across the Kosovo border, and that an attack on Serbs at the hands of the Kosovo army was imminent.
Such propaganda was echoed by high-profile Russian politicians, such as Kremlin foreign affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The operation failed, and conflict was averted, but it would be irresponsible to assume Moscow will not try this tactic again.
Russia has the motivation, capacity, and opportunity to exploit the renewed ethnic tensions in both Bosnia and Kosovo to its political advantage. With the West preoccupied with defending and strengthening Ukraine’s resistance to Putin’s belligerency, Moscow now has its eyes set on instigating new conflicts.
Not only would this stretch the limits of Western support to Kyiv, but it would also distract from the humanitarian catastrophes Russia continues to exact upon Ukraine.
The fragility of peace in the Balkans, consequential of historic ethnic tensions and violence, provides the Kremlin with an all-to-convenient opportunity to interfere militarily.
In doing so, material support is diverted away from Ukraine, public attention is distracted from the horrors Russia continues to inflict with its “special operation”, and Moscow is provided with the chance to expand and consolidate its sphere of influence.
It is indisputable that Putin acts militarily to advance his political agenda, so we should be concerned that the frangible peace in the Balkans could soon be shattered.