Ever the destabilizer, Putin meddles in Bosnia: Emboldens Ultranationalists

October 22 2018

This is the face of grief.  Hers is one among hundreds of thousands of anguished Muslims who make the mountainous memorial trek to Srebrenica. In this Bosnian town nearly 25 years ago, Serbs unleashed their most savage attack of the Balkan’s wars: rounding up Muslim men from nearby hamlets and towns, warehousing them in a battery factory, then torturing and slaughtering them. Serbs coined the phrase “ethnic cleansing” when they named their campaign. They erased Muslim men from virtually every family in Srebrenica and for miles around. The death toll topped 8,000. Fearing mass graves could lead to war crimes charges, Serbs used earthmoving equipment to quickly spread the corpses wide and far. For the past quarter century, forensic investigators and average citizens have unearthed human bones, hoping to make each body whole for proper burial. The work continues, and every year, Bosnians lay more fully assembled relatives to rest. Many more wait for closure.

Bosnia was carved into two areas after its 1992-1995 war: the Serb-led Republika Srpska covets closeness with Russia, its biggest trade partner and foreign investor.  The other area, the Muslim-Croat Federation, pushes for western alliances, including NATO and EU membership. Republika Srpska’s Srebrenica, like all of Bosnia, still bears signs of the conflict that incinerated populated areas. Cites and rural hamlets alike are pockmarked from shelling, their streets still marred by mortar fire. Billboards rise from large swaths of fenced-off land, warning of mines and unexploded ordinance.

Among Bosnian Muslims, anger festers. Twenty-five years after men put down arms, few have picked up jobs. The legacy of 350,000 restless and unemployed ex-soldiers puts enormous pressure on society. Men beat and sexually assault women at an alarming rate, the juvenile delinquency rate is soaring, and youth are leaving in droves. The IMF says Bosnia’s brain drain of the young and educated talent portends a tough future for a country that bears deep scars of war.

So what now for this vulnerable society?

Russian influence in Bosnian elections! Moscow’s meddling is opportunistic, taking advantage of a people in turmoil, and consistent with its jarring penetration in almost every major political news development, worldwide. Putin made sure that his favored Serb nationalist Milorad Dodik secured the Serb seat in Bosnia’s inter-ethnic presidency. His public endorsements and suspected private support of Dodik have emboldened the leader/candidate’s calls for Repubika Srpska’s right to a land grab and it’s own statehood. In turn, Dodik promises to push Bosnia’s recognition of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and he’s already invited Vladimir Putin for an official visit.

Dodik leads Serbs who share that same yearning for ethnic purity, for a separate state of Serbs and only Serbs. Enter the master manipulators: Russia knows that Bosnians harbor the same hatred, the same suspicions, and the same resentments of decades, much less centuries ago. They know that Bosnia’s recent history –and that of the entire Balkans, was marked by tribal wars, massacres and mass graves. And this means that the nation now teeters on the treacherous.  Bosnia’s bloody background could well be its foreground, if Serbs rise to Dodik’s call.

Bosnia’s weakness is Russia’s strength. The nation now teeters on the treacherous. For Bosnians, and the rest of the Balkans, almost everyone wrestles with trauma. For angry and anguished mourners like this woman, reconciliation is beyond reach. And the new political landscape all but guarantees it.


Interested in changing the equation? Then work with local Bosnians to expose the corruption eroding their democracy. Learn about or engage with the on-the-ground organizations in Bosnia: Freedom House on BosniaTransparency InternationalCSCEWorld Bank.

For detailed coverage in Fortune Magazine, read more here.