Western Balkans Overview Nov 27, 2023 – CWBS

Western Balkans Overview Nov 27, 2023 – CWBS
  • Statement by BiH Minister of Defence on setting up military camps on the territory Republika Srpska

If BiH State Defence Minister Zukan Helez is to be believed, the Russians have already landed in Bosnia and Herzegovina and are in the area of Rogatica and the Maglic mountains in eastern Bosnia. “It’s not a secret, people see it, it’s the villages around Rogatice, people take pictures of this in the light of the day, they train there. I have photos, I will show them on TV,” said Helez. “They train using weapons, and we know where they got them from. It is presented as if it’s legitimate, as if it’s all part of the RS’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, and then it emerges in some other form, and as long as it poses no threat to the nation, there is no reaction. We have found the camps and we are monitoring them. I told this to people from the international community, and of course they are aware,” added the Minister of Defence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, when reporters asked him to provide concrete evidence to back these alarming claims, he replied that he “can’t send those photos yet.” He also chose not to reveal the source of the information, noting only that it is “about the training of some young people and some individuals from Russia.” A close ally of Milorad Dodik, Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations, Stasa Kosarac, reacted immediately, requesting that the Chairman of the BiH Council of Ministers, Borjana Kristo, quickly convene an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee on Intelligence. “It is extremely dangerous when the Minister of Defense publicly makes such claims against Republika Srpska without any evidence. This can be qualified as inciting national intolerance and fear. With such actions, he does not contribute to the stabilization in Bosnia and Herzegovina at all,” Kosarac said.

Mayor of Rogatice, Milorad Jagodic, assures that there are no Russian camps on the territory of his municipality. “We’re not some jungle, so if you can’t see them, you can check on a daily basis. It’s a pure lie,” Jagodic said. Helez never published any photos that would confirm the existence of Russian camps in the middle of the country, whose security is dealt with by NATO. Meanwhile, the issue reached the British Parliament’s House of Commons. Alicia Cairns, chairwoman of the foreign affairs committee, said she was deeply concerned by the report from the BiH defence minister about the camps where Serbian and Russian extremists are allegedly training.

The First Deputy Minister of Defence of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Aleksandar Hoganovic, said there is still no answer to the question of whose armed men are illegally staying on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and called on the authorities to investigate these allegations as soon as possible and inform the public to this end, as the Constitution and sovereignty were violated in this case. “Without a decision of the Presidium of Bosnia and Herzegovina, servicemen of other countries’ armed forces shall not come to the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Hoganovic said.

Milorad Dodik, the President of the Republika Srpska, said that now he BiH Council of Ministers shall not make any decisions in the defence field for as long as Zukan Helez remains minister. Dodik said Helez was spreading lies in his speeches.

In her letter, member of the BiH Presidium Željka Cvijanović laid down an appeal, according to which the Presidium of BiH, as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of BiH, obliges the Minister of Defence to provide the Council of Ministers with full information on public accusations regarding the existence of paramilitary camps and formations on the territory of Republika Srpska. “The Presidium of Bosnia and Herzegovina will require from the Intelligence and Security Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Ministry of Security, the Investigation and Protection Agency, in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republika Srpska, to conduct an investigation within their competence in order to establish the exact factual situation and circumstances related to claims voiced by the Minister of Defence. The BiH Presidium shall instruct the above-mentioned institutions to provide the requested information no later than 15 days after receiving the appeal,” Cvijanović said.

It should be recalled that the case ignited as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina. At a dinner with members of the BiH Presidium, he had the opportunity to see with his own eyes all the internal disagreements when it comes to the country’s security and its accession to the Alliance. It is not known whether Stoltenberg took note of Helez’s claims but it is telling that they were made after a group of Serbian deputies in the BiH parliament sent a letter to U.S. Congress and the European Parliament, saying that Bosnia and Herzegovina “has long been a haven for radical Islamists.”

Now Cvijanović’s colleagues from the BiH presidium, Zeljko Komšić and Denis Bečirović have the opportunity to either support or refuse to discuss the appeal. Komšić and Bečirović may also propose to discuss the issue more broadly, which will include both Zukan Halez’s statements and statements from a recent letter by a number of parliamentarians from Republika Srpska to the U.S. Congress, which states that Bosnia and Herzegovina has long been a haven for radical Islamists , that “there are villages in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina whose residents adhere to Sharia law, and that parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina are still home to numerous dormant al-Qaeda and ISIS cells that could potentially be activated if ordered.”

Thus, the statement of Defence Minister Helez can be seen as a kind of response to accusations of Bosniaks of indulging Islamic fundamentalism. However, if it turns out that the given facts are false, such a statement will become a convenient platform for the RS to accuse the Bosniaks and their leadership of falsifications, which will only strengthen their position in promoting secession and unwillingness to live together within one state. But if military training camps really appear on the territory of the RS, the aforementioned statement by Helez will be used as yet another claim that Sarajevo is trying the escalate tensions.

  • Diplomatic row between Belgrade and Zagreb

“Croatia reciprocated and responded adequately to the expulsion of the Croatian diplomat from Serbia,” Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said, warning that such steps do not promote trust and cooperation between Zagreb and Belgrade. In his speech at the government meeting, Plenkovic emphasised that Croatia reacted in accordance with the principle of reciprocity and did it properly, since there was no formal clarification of any details regarding the expulsion of the first secretary of the Croatian embassy in Serbia, Hrvoje Schneider. “Regardless of the pre-election atmosphere in Serbia, we believe that such steps do not contribute to the establishment of trust or cooperation between the two countries, and therefore we react to the actions taken by Serbia,” Plenkovic concluded. The Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Republic of Croatia, in turn, declared the advisor of the Serbian Embassy in Croatia, Petar Novakovic, persona non grata, as a response to Belgrade’s move.

It should be recalled that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia stated that the expelled Croatian diplomat grossly violated diplomatic norms, and the pro-government Serbian mass media claimed that Hrvoje Schneider was expelled for espionage. More precisely, the note of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia stated that “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia expresses regret over the behaviour of the above-mentioned diplomat in the past period, which does not contribute to the improvement of bilateral relations, good-neighbourly cooperation and the general increase in the level of peace and stability. Therefore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia decided to declare Hrvoje Schneider, the first secretary of the Embassy of the Republic of Croatia in Belgrade, persona non grata, in accordance with Art. 9 of the Vienna Convention, which regulates diplomatic-consular relations”. It is about “documented espionage and recruitment for Croatian service,” Serbian tabloids wrote, and that the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency has exposed a Croatian diplomat who allegedly tried to set up an intelligence network in Belgrade. It is also alleged that he was in contact with people from political, business, and media circles, and when all relevant evidence was obtained, all measures were taken to stop his allegedly hostile activities. In this regard, the mentioned diplomatic note was handed to the Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia in Belgrade, Hidajet Biščević.

Thus, Belgrade and Zagreb exchanged expulsions of diplomats. Croatia’s Prime Minister Plenkovic noted that he did not receive concrete evidence that the Croatian diplomat engaged in activities that are not in line with his diplomatic status. And in connection with this, a Serbian diplomat was expelled from Zagreb in response. Plenković himself is well versed about the details of diplomatic activities, since he spent most of his career in the diplomatic service. He was with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for many years, reaching the post of First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and worked in responsible positions in the Croatian embassies in Brussels and Paris. Therefore he is well aware of the details of a diplomat’s work abroad. On the other hand, the prime minister of Croatia well noticed that the expulsion of the Croatian diplomat took place at a time when the situation in Serbia was aggravating in connection with preparations for early elections, so the actions by Belgrade could be related to the need to send certain political signals to its own citizens, which is purely a campaign technique. It is interesting that the expulsion of the Croatian diplomat took place already at a time when the head of the Security and Information Agency Vulin, who constantly spoke harshly towards Croatia, had already resigned from his position. Vulin himself got involved in the pre-election struggle and it is possible that he could have influenced the decision to expel Hrvoe Shneider, while not already in office, or having prepared such a decision in advance before he resigned. No one rules out the possibility that it was justified after all. It should be understood that if someone engaged in activities that contradict the provisions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, then as a rule, they will never publicly admit to actions that are in breach of their diplomatic status.

  • Will opposition accept Brussels’ terms on Kosovo if it wins Serbian elections?

The Franco-German plan became the main unit of measure of cooperation among various opposition parties, which even depends on the conditions of support, that is, the possible future unification of various opposition forces with the aim of overthrowing Aleksandr Vučić’s power. Whether this will be done by the pro-European opposition it is not known as it is not clearly stated that it will support the proposal of Brussels and Washington to solve the problem. The Green-Left Front and the Movement of Free Citizens do not hesitate to speak out on this matter, considering the Franco-German plan a good basis for development towards solving the problem, while other members of the coalition are more reserved. That is, they avoid a clear statement in various ways, while some of them even tacitly advocate the rejection of the Franco-German plan. Taking into account the lack of a clear position of the Serbia Against Violence coalition, it is clear that the voters of this coalition also oscillate between the opinion that the plan is good, due to the understanding of the inevitability of the acceptance of Brussels’s proposals, to the position that it should be rejected. That is, there is no consensus on this within the coalition, just as there is no consensus among those who will support them and vote for the list in the elections. And this heterogeneity is perhaps the biggest problem of the coalition.

It should be noted that, according to some Serbian analysts, it seems unfair to insist so much on putting the opposition leaders against the wall for an answer regarding the Kosovo settlement, while the skeptical right-wing opposition has no clear plan in this regard. Of course, the right would like to gain political advantage on this topic without a clear solution to the Kosovo problem. In addition, the chairman of the People’s Party, former foreign minister Vuk Jeremić, recently said that the government that will be formed after the elections will have to reject the Franco-German proposal. Otherwise, he noted, the People’s Party will not partake in this government. The Nadija coalition (New Democratic Party of Serbia and POKS), as well as the Dveri and Zavetnik coalitions, insist on the refusal.

Thus, right-wing opposition parties have been insisting since the launch of the election campaign that the pro-European bloc united in the coalition Serbia Against Violence declare whether it will accept or reject the Franco-German plan to resolve the Kosovo issue if it wins the elections. But there is still no clear answer from the majority of the coalition members. No one wants to risk the votes if they now decide on a formula for solving the Kosovo problem. Spin doctors do not recommend that the parties to define their position ahead of the elections because this can affect the opinion of their voters, the majority of whom are more inclined to patriotic rhetoric in this matter.

  • Serbia acquires batch of attack helicopters

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić attended the event where 11 Mi-35P combat helicopters were delivered from Cyprus to the Batajnica military airfield near Belgrade. He announced that the country will continue to modernize and equip its armed forces and export weapons Vučić noted that it is very important for the Serbian army to increase its capabilities to protect the country and its airspace. “We are proud of the huge investments in the defence system. And we do all this without increasing the public debt, and we will continue to do so,” Vučić said. He confirmed that Serbia is purchasing drones and other weapons, but stopped short of specifying who are the suppliers and what quantities he is talking about. Vučić added that the agreement with Cyprus was concluded in such a way that half of the money was secured due to the export to this country of domestically produced jet artillery such as Nora and Tamnava. In 2021, the governments of Cyprus and Serbia agreed on the purchase of outdated Mi-35 helicopters that needed major repairs. “Look at these helicopter beauties… Several are in need of major repairs and upgrades. It will be a job to be completed by our enterprises, but we will also need help from the outside,” Vučić said, adding that by January, six units of this type will be in flying condition and accepted for service. He said the armed forces will now have more than 60 Mi-35M and Mi-35R helicopters, as well as the H-145M, Gazelle, Mi-17, and Mi-8 types, which is a very large number for a country the size of Serbia. Vučić confirmed that an agreement was signed with one country on the export of 48 Serbian Nora B52 155mm self-propelled howitzers worth a total of EUR 311 million. He did not name the country because he is still waiting for the procedure to be ratified by parliament, but he hinted that there will be more such contracts.

It is clear to everyone that the public presentation of an air force beefup was aimed at potential voters of the political force headed by Vučić on the eve of the parliamentary elections. The president presents new weapons to strengthen Serbia’s defence capabilities in the context of protecting the country from possible aggression. However, if Vučić’s message is deciphered literally, where could the danger for Serbia’s statehood come from? In the southeast, it borders NATO members North Macedonia and Bulgaria. So far, there have been no instances of verbal or written statements from Skopje and Sofia about seeking to take over any part of Serbia, given that Bulgaria is comparable in size to Serbia and North Macedonia is much smaller. To the east and north, Serbia borders NATO member states Romania and Hungary. At the same time, Budapest has long been positioning itself as an open friend of Serbia, or rather, it is the line of personal communication between Orban and Vučić, and Bucharest has also never hinted at any problems with Belgrade. In the east, Serbia borders Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatia is a member of NATO, but Zagreb has never called for a military confrontation with Belgrade, but from BiH, which is not a member of the Alliance and is much smaller than Serbia, it is generally difficult to predict a military threat coming toward Belgrade. In addition, Serbia borders BiH exclusively through the territory of Republika Srpska, which is Belgrade’s main ally. In the south, Serbia borders Montenegro, which is ten times smaller than Serbia, and Kosovo, which is four times smaller, and whose independence Belgrade does not recognise. So, there are no direct threats for Serbia coming from its neighbours, but Serbia itself can be dangerous for Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, which have a military potential that is several times lower than Serbia’s. And taking into account the statements of the RS President, Milorad Dodik, that it is necessary to create a Serbian state within the borders of Serbia, obviously including the north of Kosovo, Republika Srpska, and Montenegro, those combat helicopters purchased by Belgrade can be used precisely in these three directions, indeed, to protect the airspace of Serbia, but in case it attacks its southern or eastern neighbours.