27 September 2023

Is this Bosnia’s NATO moment?

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Mersiha Gadzo* says the invasion of Ukraine presents an opportunity for vulnerable countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina to shake off Russian influence and take steps to join NATO.

Russian President, Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine may spill over into the Western Balkans, most critically, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a small country that has become a battleground between NATO and Moscow.

Analysts believe the crisis in Ukraine presents “a unique opportunity for Bosnia to deal a decisive blow to Russian-backed separatists” in the Balkan country.

Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg said more support was needed for countries like Georgia, Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina to help them pursue the path they have freely chosen.

The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell echoed this position.

“We’re worried that there could be more conflicts… that something might happen again in the Balkans,” Mr Borrell said.

Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia are the only countries in the Western Balkans that have not joined the NATO alliance.

Bosnia has made it a strategic goal to join NATO and the EU, but Bosnian Serbs, led by Putin ally, Milorad Dodik object to the country becoming part of the military alliance.

The Russian Embassy in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo warned last year that should Bosnia take steps towards joining NATO, “our country will have to react to this hostile act”.

Having already survived a war in the early 1990s, many Bosnians are concerned that their country may be Mr Putin’s next target.

Amid the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian embassy in Bosnia said in a Facebook post that Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov had held talks with Mr Dodik.

Co-Chair of the US-Europe Alliance organisation, Reuf Bajrovic said Russia’s proxies in the Balkans would be watching the aggression against Ukraine “because of the implications”.

A crisis has been unravelling in Bosnia since October when Mr Dodik announced the Serb-led entity of Republika Srpska would be pulling out of key State institutions and forming its own organisations, including a Serb army.

For years, Mr Dodik has been threatening to break up Bosnia, saying that Republika Srpska uniting territorially with Serbia would be the “final frame”.

However, with tension building in the Western Balkans, some have spotted opportunities for change.

The Washington-based Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina said the crisis in Ukraine presented “a unique opportunity for Bosnia to deal a decisive blow to Putin-backed separatists in Bosnia”.

Council head, Ajla Delkic urged the “isolation and destruction of structures that are the extended arm of the Kremlin”.

“Why wait for the Kremlin to use their structures in the Balkans as a lever against Europe?” Mr Delkic asked.

“We must pre-emptively dismantle Putin’s ability to project power and fix the mistakes made in the 1990s that allowed bad actors to use force to carve up territory and commit genocide.”

Co-founder of the Democratisation Policy Council, a Berlin-based think-tank, Kurt Bassuener said there was now a potential for major changes to occur.

“The velocity of policy evolution in the democratic West is really amazing. There’s no doubt going from where we were to where we are is quite a big step — with the sanctions, with Germany willing to send arms, with all of that,” Mr Bassuener said.

“I do think that the potential to secure the Balkan front is very high. Now is the time to develop a strategy.

“Bosnia has a chance to get rid of Russia’s influence and make the final step to NATO membership”.

*Mersiha Gadzo is a journalist and online producer for Al Jazeera English. Before this she worked as a freelancer in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the occupied Palestinian territories.

This article first appeared on the Al Jazeera website.

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