Dodik’s Kazan mission

Dodik’s Kazan mission

The Russia visit of Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, his meeting with Vladimir Putin, and the receipt of the Russian award have all demonstrated Banja Luka’s even greater loyalty to Moscow. In fact, the authorities of the Serbian entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina have directly stated they stand along Russia’s side, while perceiving the West as its opponent, just short of an adversary.

The ultimate shift toward Russia will obviously have significant destabilizing consequences for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

End of neutrality

It was not the first time Dodik came to Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the latest meeting with the Russian president, held in the capital of Russia’s Tatarstan, Kazan, was their fourth in the past two years. However, the latest trip attracted special attention due to the radically pro-Russian statements made by the RS leader – untypical even for this politician.

Thus, previously Dodik emphasized his “neutral” attitude toward the Russo-Ukrainian war. In May 2023, for example, Putin thanked him for his “neutrality” regarding the “conflict in Ukraine”. This time, however, Dodik spoke in a different tone.

Following talks with Putin, Dodik emphasized in an interview with RT (ex-Russia Today) he wished the Russian president “victory” (note that the meeting between the two presidents took place shortly after Russian invasion forces captured the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka). “I wished him further victories. I said that all his victories, Russia’s victories are our victories, too. And we believe Russia is on the right side. For the freedom of people, nations, and countries. In this regard, President Putin is now executing a very important mission,” he said. Media also quoted Dodik as saying that “Russia was forced to protect its people and therefore launched a Special Military Operation.”

With these statements, not only did Dodik echo Russian propaganda clichés, he also expressed Banja Luka’s new official position, which has gone far from neutral. Now it’s definitely pro-Russian and anti-Western.

However, the RS president did not limit himself to the topic of the Russo-Ukrainian war, demonstrating that the radicalization of Serbs, whom he represents, applies to other areas as well.

Discussing with Putin the issue of international Russia sanctions and BIH’s intended accession to NATO, Dodik predictably emphasized that his entity would not allow BiH to proceed with either. His remarks about BIH allegedly being under the “protectorate” of Western nations were also quite predictable. But Dodik’s statement that the actions of Western democracies in RS constitute “intervention” (as quoted from Rossiyskaya Gazeta) became a new milestone in the confrontation between BIH’s Serbs and the West. (It should be recalled that one of the definitions of the term “intervention” is an act of violent interference of one or more states in the internal affairs of another state, aimed against its territorial integrity or political independence).

It seems that Dodik has decided to “burn all the bridges” with Brussels and Washington…

To additionally reinforce this message, before arriving in Russia, Dodik also visited Belarus where he received a warm welcome from Putin’s ally Alexander Lukashenko.

It is obvious that from now on, Republika Srpska will become an even more aggressive stronghold for the Kremlin in the region. But the main problem is that Dodik’s actions signal a change of course not only for Banja Luka, but also for Belgrade, because the RS leader works as par of a team led by the neighboring country.

And that country is led by Aleksandar Vučić.

Special relationship

Vučić have constantly proven, in various ways, that Dodik was among his closest associates. The RS president attends pretty much all public events Belgrade finds significant, including election win celebrations, commemoration of memorable dates, military parades and exhibitions… The most vivid example of the leader of Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina being part of Vučić’s team was Dodik’s participation in a recent military meeting in Belgrade, where he joined Serbia’s highest army leadership. That meeting, held late January, was a purely domestic affair but the presence of the RS leader, who is formally one of the neighboring country’s (BiH) high-ranking officials, served the obvious purpose of demonstrating the extremely close ties between Belgrade and Banja Luka, as well as between Vučić and Dodik. Wide media coverage of the event only contributed to spreading the word.

However, the special relationship between the President of Serbia and the President of the Republika Srpska has long been no secret. It is noteworthy that not so long ago, the leader of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Miloš Vučević stated that the West is exerting pressure on Vučić, demanding that he urge Dodik to change his attitudes. Vučević actually made it clear that this demand was not and will not be fulfilled. As we can see, even the latest controversial statements Dodik made in Russia provoked no condemnation from Serbian authorities and did not force force Belgrade to distance itself from the Serbs’ leader in BiH.

It should be noted that although the position of the RS president is currently much more pro-Russian than that expressed by Serbia’s leadership, Belgrade’s steps towards Moscow also signal willingness to build even closer Serbian-Russian relations.

Vučić’s recent complimentary interview with the Russian state-run news agency, the constant statements about the reluctance to impose sanctions on Russia, and the purchase of new Russian weapons (anti-drone systems) for the Serbian army – all this suggests that Belgrade is coooperating with Moscow and willing to do so and in the foreseeable future. Therefore, Dodik’s latest statements do not look like something unacceptable, but as a component of the common pro-Russian course pursued by Belgrade and Banja Luka. It’s just that the authorities of Serbia and Vučić personally obviously do not want to fully shift toward Russia, therefore the public mission to support and develop Serbian-Russian contacts has been entrusted to Dodik, a politician from a neighboring country.

It is significant that Aleksandar Vulin, ex-head of the Information and security and intelligence agency of Serbia (БИА/BIA), who is considered as Russian intelligence’s key ally in the Balkans, who keeps the main liaison channel between Serbian authorities and the Kremlin, two months ago was sent to strengthen the team in Banja Luka, becoming Dodik’s de-facto adviser.

Belgrade likely decided to relinquish to Banja Luka the role of the radically pro-Russian wing of all Balkan Serbs, and continue to demonstrate the balance between the West and Russia. Especially since Dodik, members of his team, and Vulin are under Western sanctions anyway.

Heading toward a hybrid conflict

Banja Luka officials likely believe that at this stage, cooperation with Moscow will contribute to revisiting the “original” Dayton deal, help get rid of the Office of the High Representative as the current settlement mechanism, and l ensure the expansion of the entity’s rights and powers.

The Serbian authorities, working alongside Dodik, who is loyal to Belgrade and Moscow, pursue their own interests, which are not limited to the development of the cross-border community of Serbs in the region (building a “Serbian world”, as Vulin says) or supporting RS’s aspirations for achieving greater independence from BiH authorities. Belgrade is apparently also addressing other issues, including ensuring an increase in the voters’ base at the expense of citizens of the neighboring country holding a Serbian passport (the technique of “voter migration from RS to Serbia” already brought Vučić’s party, as they claim, thousands of votes in the latest election), and attempting to cooperate with Russia through “intermediaries” from Banja Luka.

In turn, the Kremlin, cooperating with the leadership of Republika Srpska, acts in line with its own list of tasks. This includes preventing BiH from imposing sanctions, inhibiting BiH’s European integration (as the process involves coordination of foreign and security policy) and thwarting BiH’s cooperation with NATO. Accordingly, focusing on its own needs, Moscow will in every possible way contribute to continued radicalization of Banja Luka’s current course, aimed at confrontation with Sarajevo and the Office of the High Representative (OHR), and generally at escalating the conflict between Republic of Srpska and the West.

It is obvious that with the increase and intensification of Russia’s influence on Banja Luka, be it direct or indirect, the existing contradictions between Republika Srpska and the authorities of BiH will not be resolved. Moreover, they will intensify, and new points of instability will be added to the older disputes.

At some point, the confrontation may turn into an actual hybrid conflict, beneficial solely to Moscow. But it seems that Banja Luka and Belgrade are not afraid of such developments.