Western Balkans Overview Nov 20, 2023 – CWBS

Western Balkans Overview Nov 20, 2023 – CWBS
  • U.S. sanctions against Dodik and his political entourage

The Minister of Industry, Energy, and Mining of Republika Srpska, Petar Djokic, a member of the executive board of the ruling SNSD, and businessman Savo Cvijetinovic, as well as the head of the RS representational office in Moscow Dusko Perovic have been designated by the U.S. Treasury.

Washington issued an explanation through its embassy in Sarajevo, saying that those who channel Russian influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina through illegitimate business activities and influence peddling, engage in corruption, or undermine the Dayton Peace Agreement will continue to face consequences.

President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik predictably stated that the sanctions against high-ranking officials and leaders of the parties that are part of the RS government are an attempt to decapitate the RS people. “Corruption, non-compliance with the Dayton Peace Agreement, criminality – these are some of the explanations with no evidence provided to back them. The US does not require evidence, it is enough to mark the target for judgment. And, finally, sanctions for lobbying meetings with the Russian president, which is already a game of open cards,” said Dodik. Everything the U.S. does, Dodik believes, is because of the well-known ties between the Russian and Serbian peoples.

Member of the Presidium of Bosnia and Herzegovina Željka Cvijanović also commented on the introduction of sanctions. She said that “the explanation of the U.S. Treasury Department regarding the imposition of sanctions against RS Minister of Energy and Mining Petar Djokic is outrageous. Cvijanović says she is appalled by the reason behind the sanctions against Djokic, namely the signing of a contract with a representative of the Croatian government in 2017 regarding something related to the development and protection of the economic potential of a business entity on the RS territory. It is ‘allegedly in breach of the Dayton Agreement’, “but in 2017 you sign a contract, and in 2023 sanctions are imposed on you, so something really contradicts the Dayton Agreement, Cvijanović `said.

The leader of the Serbian right, Miša Vacić, commenting in Belgrade on the sanctions imposed on him by the U.S. government, said it was a great honor to be on the same list with RS President Milorad Dodik and the former head of the Security Information Agency, Aleksandar Vulin. “All true Serbs were accused not only by the enemies of the Serbs, Republika Srpska, and Serbia, but also by the enemies of humanity,” Vacić said.

U.S. sanctions were applied not only to politicians, but also to entrepreneurs who helped Dodik’s clan to gain illegal profits by using leverage in the government in Republika Srpska. For example, Dusko Perovic was Dodik’s main liaison with Russia for years. He pitched the RS president directly to Vladimir Putin. Perovic is a long-term chief of the RS representational office in Moscow. He was also an intermediary in the RS government’s cooperation with a well-known Russian billionaire. In 2014, Perovic brought billionaire Rashid Serdarov, with whom he was in close touch, to Milorad Dodik to negotiate the construction of the Mrsovo HPP. Despite the fact that Perovic was an RS government official, he had also been hired by two companies of the mentioned Russian billionaire, Serdarov, while the latter was in the process of concluding a favorable agreement with the RS government. It is also interesting that the RS Minister of Energy, Djokic, who came under U.S. sanctions, is the leader of the Socialist Party, which is a coalition partner of the SNSD. In 2017, he signed agreements not with the Croatian side, as Željka Cvijanović notes, but with two Chinese companies for the construction of the Gacko II thermal power plant worth half a billion euros. For the scale of Republika Srpska, this was the largest investment since the entity was conceived. This energy facility was supposed to be put into operation as early as 2022 but there is no end in sight to its completion. Although there have been explanations for the deadline breaches due to the Covid pandemic, it is obvious that someone has embezzled huge funds from the construction, which has been suspended. So the U.S. Treasury is imposing sanctions on individuals from the business circles close to the RS president in order to reduce the illegal profits of Milorad Dodik and his entourage.

  • Stoltenberg’s trip to Western Balkans

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg kicked off his tour across the Western Balkans with a visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he had meetings with the members of the BiH Presidium, High Representative Christian Schmidt, and head of the BiH Council of Ministers, Borjana Krišto. At the NATO office in Sarajevo, Stoltenberg held meetings with military leaders and representatives of the international community. From there, the NATO chief will go to Pristina for meetings with Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani and Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Stoltenberg will also visit NATO’s Kosovo Command, where he will meet KFOR Commander Major General Ozkan Ulutas and Alliance Communications Advisory Group Director Brigadier General Christian Ludwig von Hammerstein, as well as address the Mission’s forces. A day later, Jens Stoltenberg will be in Belgrade, where meetings are scheduled with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić. He will also meet with Serbian researchers who will present technology developed in the context of NATO’s Science for Peace and Security projects. North Macedonia will be the last stage of the NATO Secretary General’s visit to the Western Balkans. There he will meet with the head of state Stevo Pendarovski and Parliament Speaker Talat Xhaferi, as well as address lawmakers. A meeting with Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski is also scheduled, after which meetings will be held with the leaders of NATO member states in the region – Croatian President Zoran Milanović and Prime Ministers of Albania Edi Rama, Slovenia Robert Golob and Montenegro Milojko Spajić.

We can predict that the visit is not accidental. After all, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has greatly worsened due to the provocative speeches by the President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, who calls for the RS secession and creation of a joint Serbian state composed of Serbia, Republika Srpska, and Montenegro, and it is implied that the north of Kosovo will also be part of this neoplasm. Therefore, the first point of such a landmark visit was Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the NATO secretary general sent a signal to Sarajevo that the Alliance would not tolerate Dodik’s separatist policy in any way. This is also a signal to the Banja Luka that in the case if Dodik pursues the policy of secession, Brussels will react harshly, so it will be difficult to expect timely support from Moscow, since the Western Balkans region is considered in Washington and Brussels as a zone of their influence so they will not tolerate Russian interference due to pro-Kremlin policy the RS president and nationalist forces in Serbia. This signal will be delivered personally to President Aleksandar Vučić in Belgrade. It is better for Serbia to focus on the implementation of the European integration course than to support any pro-Moscow moves by radical politicians. Until the end of the parliamentary elections, the European community will likely tolerate anti-Kosovo rhetoric in Serbia’s media space but then the ruling elite will have to decide on the de-facto recognition of Pristina, otherwise a harsh reaction will likely come from the European Union, which will obviously see NATO’s support as well. The aggravation along the Bosnia-Herzegovina-Kosovo line will not bring anything good for the future of the Serbian people. Serbia is surrounded by NATO allies – Romania, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Hungary. Although the latter two favor close relations with Belgrade, this does not mean at all that they will tolerate the Great Serbia policy if it is condemned by Brussels. The implementation of the project to create Greater Serbia would imply a major war in the Western Balkans, which is not in the interest of any nation inhabiting the region. Therefore, it is obviously easier for NATO to neutralize the provocateurs in advance than to sit idly until a real armed conflict flares up. The meeting of the NATO secretary general with the leaders of the NATO allies in the region will be related to the discussion of the security situation of the Western Balkans and readiness for joint action in case of contingencies.

  • Ukrainian president’s call to stay alert over developments in Balkans

The head of the foreign policy committee of the British Parliament, Alicia Cairns, reacted to the recent statement by President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, who said special attention should be paid to the Balkans. “Pay attention to the Balkans, believe me, we are getting information that Russia has big plans. The Middle East and another distraction is the Balkans. If the countries of the West and other countries around the world do nothing, there will be another explosion,” Volodymyr Zelensky said. Kearns recalled that she had repeatedly warned that the West must find its footing in the Balkans and not repeat the failure to prevent conflicts. The Balkans, she stressed, is Europe’s backyard, and Europe bears a historical responsibility for the region. She recalled that she had warned colleagues back in June that some serious developments could unfold in Kosovo, but no action was taken. Much to the lawmakers regret, as she noted, her concerns were justified.

Commenting on Zelensky’s statement that he has information about Russia seeking to provoke a conflict in the Balkans, military analyst Aleksandar Radić said: “Ghe Balkans are divided, there are serious problems, we inherited the wars of the 1990s, which were resolved through temporary measures, none of which were significant. Of course, it is in Russia’s interest to achieve some relief in its current position by destabilizing the Balkans.” In Moscow, some could only wish for chaos in the Balkans, as this would greatly engage NATO forces, and it would occupy Western nations politically, diplomatically, intelligence-wise, and ultimately militarily, as they would have to deal with the problems there. “Of course, if you scatter the opponent’s focus across several different problems at different points that they face, it always benefits the other side, it’s always been like that,” concluded Radić.

Zelensky’s statement hardly came as unexpected for those who are deeply informed in the issues of the Western Balkans region because this part of the peninsula is indeed most turbulent. There were also skeptical comments regarding the statement, claiming that the Ukrainian president is exaggerating the threat of conflict escalation as everything that is happening is allegedly under control. Critics say such dramatization comes from Kyiv’s personal perception of Russia as an enemy of its own state, which is reflected in its perception of other regions as well. But it’s not for nothing that the NATO secretary general has arrived here. The situation is moving toward escalation, and the main driver of the destruction of territorial integrity is the president of Republika Srpska, who has become the projector of the Kremlin’s will to incite an armed conflict over the idea of forming a common state for all Serbs in the region. Milorad Dodik’s manipulation of citizens’ patriotic feelings seems to be generously paid for by the Kremlin but the RS president doesn’t forget of his own business interest while hiding behind nationalist slogans. In addition, the Balkans have always been “Europe’s gunpowder cellar”, of which many generations of politicians and analysts are well aware. The events of the past one and a half centuries only confirm such a qualification.

Complacency is not the key that can lock the gates of the simmering conflict in the region. Instead, it can only once again bring another bloody surprise, which happened more than once in the Western Balkans, being a harbinger of major wars.

  • Croatia marks 32nd anniversary of Vukovar tragedy

Croatia marked the 32nd anniversary of Vukovar’s suffering during the latest war, when after a nearly three-month siege and heavy fighting, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Serbian paramilitaries captured the city, resulting in hundreds of people killed and injured on both sides. The tragic event was marked by a memorial procession through the streets of Vukovar. Some 150,000 citizens from all over Croatia walked the streets with dignity and peace in honor of the victims of Vukovar in the Patriotic War. Wreaths were laid at the monument at the Memorial Cemetery of the Victims of the Patriotic War by the government and other delegations. In 1991, from August to November 18, Vukovar was under siege for 87 days. According to the Vukovar hospital records, 1,624 people were killed and more than 2,500 were injured during the three-month siege. About 5,000 people were deported to camps in Serbia, and almost 22,000 Croats and representatives of other ethnic groups were driven from the city. About 300 people are considered missing to this day.

Denis Bećirović, a member of the Presidium of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was also present at the ceremony together with his delegation. Bećirović joined the memorial column that marched from the Vukovar hospital to the Memorial Cemetery of the Victims of the Patriotic War. The procession was led by President of Croatia Zoran Milanović, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Parliament Speaker Goran Jandroković, and Mayor of Vukovar Ivan Penava.

It should be recalled that the events in Vukovar marked a tragic page in the history of the Croatian Patriotic War of 1991-1995. The city returned to the administrative and legal field of Croatia only on January 15, 1998, as a result of the peaceful reintegration of eastern Slavonia and western Srem, mediated by the UN and major powers following the Erdut agreements signed off in November 1995. This was perhaps the only time in UN history when the issue of return of temporarily occupied territories was resolved peacefully. Meanwhile, the events related to the Vukovar defense in 1991 allowed Croatia and its troops to stop for some time the advance of the Yugoslav People’s Army. The time won in that case was spent on setting up systemic resistance to the Serbian aggression and the strengthening of Croatia’s armed forces, which after these tragic events actually never lost a bit of its territory as a result of combat clashes with JNA units and a couple of Serbian armed formations. Created in 1991, the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina existed until mid-late 1995 and disintegrated as a result of the liberation operations by the Croatian army. The Croatian experience of the peaceful reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories can, under certain circumstances, be applied by Ukraine authorities in an effort to regain part of the territories captured by the Russian army.