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Russia’s War on Ukraine Endangers Stability in Western Balkans, US Officials Say

This picture shows the Sarajevo city hall lit up with the colors of the Ukrainian flag, late on Feb. 24, 2022.
This picture shows the Sarajevo city hall lit up with the colors of the Ukrainian flag, late on Feb. 24, 2022.

U.S. officials are calling for increased diplomatic attention to the Western Balkans, a region seen as vulnerable to malign Russian influence campaigns in the shadow of the war in Ukraine.

“Russia’s war has clarified how urgent our work is to assist all the countries of the Western Balkans to fully advance democratic reforms and achieve their aspirations of integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions,” A State Department spokesperson said in reply to written questions from VOA.

The spokesperson wrote that diplomatic priorities for the region include the mutual recognition of countries, reduction of trade barriers, media freedom and fighting corruption.

“It’s critical that we continue to stand together in the face of this unprecedented aggression,” the spokesperson wrote. “Endemic corruption debilitates the region, accelerates brain drain and benefits a malign Russia.”

Among the most concerning issues in the region is a gradual unraveling of the delicate set of compromises laid out in the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian war that left more than 100,000 people dead.

Serbian support for Russia

That agreement divided Bosnia-Herzegonia into a Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and a region known as the Federation, dominated by Bosniaks and Croats.

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, once a self-proclaimed social democrat, has adopted an increasingly nationalist tone in recent years and emerged as the closest ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the region.

Dodik met with Putin in Moscow last September after endorsing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In January, he awarded Putin a medal of honor for his “patriotic concern and love” for the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia.

The U.S. last year announced sanctions against Dodik — although he was already under U.S. sanctions since 2017. In its statement, the U.S. Treasury accused Dodik of corruption and secessionist efforts which threaten Bosnia-Herzegovina’s stability and territorial integrity.

U.S. Representative Ann Wagner, a Republican and vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told VOA, “We have seen a dangerous increase in ethnic tensions in the Western Balkans, including hugely concerning secession threats” from politicians like Dodik.

She charged that “Russia wants to see chaos in the region, and Moscow and its proxies are backing these threats.”

Wagner, whose Missouri district welcomed thousands of Bosnian refugees in the 1990s, told VOA that the Biden administration must use its sanctions authority to deter those politicians “who are threatening Bosnia’s sovereignty and multiethnic identity.”

Mathieu Droin, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Russian behavior has aggravated tensions not only in Bosnia but also in another Balkan hotspot — the Serbia-Kosovo border.

Serbia and Kosovo have enjoyed an uneasy peace since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999. NATO-backed Kosovo achieved a de facto independence in 2008 that has never been recognized by Serbia.

Fitful efforts at reconciliation were disrupted in December when ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo blockaded border crossings for almost three weeks to protest the arrest of a former Serbian policeman and a new regulation requiring Serbian vehicles entering Kosovo to install temporary Kosovo license plates.

“There have been renewed tensions also between Serbia and Kosovo, which are not directly linked to Russia, but you can also see Russian disinformation campaigns running into the Serbian public, which are also fueling the tensions,” Droin told VOA.

While Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is less explicitly supportive of Putin and his war aims than Dodik, Serbia is highly dependent on Russian energy supplies and opinion polls show strong public support for Putin. Early in the war, thousands of Serbs marched through central Belgrade carrying Russian flags and pictures of Putin, although there were also pro-Ukrainian gatherings.

EU, US pushing for more Russia sanctions

Vucic, who says he still aspires to membership for Serbia in the European Union, has attempted a delicate balancing act, voting for the U.N. resolution that condemns Russian aggression in Ukraine but refusing to join most other European nations in imposing sanctions.

That failure to impose sanctions could leave him out of step with the international community, said Scott Cullinane, senior government relations adviser for the “Razom for Ukraine” organization in Washington.

“On one side, we have democracy. On the other side, we have genocide and authoritarianism. And Serbia has to decide which one of those two models does it think is more attractive,” said Cullinane, who worked at the House Foreign Affairs Committee for eight years.

“The Russian government has been very good throughout Europe in using ethnonationalism and small and historic grievances along lines of religion or language or nationality as wedge issues,” he added. “They don't always create them, but they expand and exploit them.”

U.S. Representative Dina Titus, a Democrat from Nevada, is also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. With other members of Congress, she signed a letter in March 2022 urging the State Department and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to deepen engagement in the Western Balkans.

“It became obvious that Russia was pushing back the boundaries at every turn. Certainly, with Serbia, with Moldova, with Ukraine. So, we wanted to be sure that we set up a hard-line border there so that Russia could not extend its influence into areas beyond where it was already at war with Ukraine,” Titus told VOA.

Titus added that the United States did strengthen its engagement — not just through military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine but, for instance, in improving relations with Serbia: “We've seen Serbia stand up and say they do not support the war in Ukraine.”

When VOA asked Titus about Serbia’s failure to impose sanctions on Russia, she replied, “It's not all perfect, but it's moving in the right direction, so we hope to be able to continue to encourage them to take a more active stand.”

Nevertheless, many experts worry that the demands created by the war in Ukraine are leaving the West with limited capacity and willingness to deal with other problems.

“In the long term, what I worry about is the Western Balkans, Serbia, Bosnia falling further behind. As more attention is placed on countries like Ukraine and Moldova, Western attention, Western resources are going to flow to those countries to help them rebuild and to further integrate with Western structures,” said Cullinane.

Moldova Endures Russia’s Wrath for Supporting Kyiv
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He said the Balkan nations need to make important commitments “that further integrate their economies, not with Russia and not with China but with Europe and with the U.S.”

Cullinane added that the Western Balkans countries “need to understand that things have changed and that we are not going to go back to the world we had before February 24.”

“Increasingly we're taking stock of which governments are helpful in that process, which governments are helping to stand up for human rights, standing up for territorial integrity, standing up to oppose genocide. And those governments that don't do that and aren't helpful in standing up, that's going to shape the environment for politics and diplomacy for years to come,” said Cullinane.

This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service.