Russia denies meddling in Bosnia as elections loom

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik to visit Moscow ahead of October 7th vote

Russian minister of foreign affairs Sergei Lavrov receives a medal from the president of the Republic of Serbian entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik (right). Photograph: Vladimir Stojakovic

Russian minister of foreign affairs Sergei Lavrov receives a medal from the president of the Republic of Serbian entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik (right). Photograph: Vladimir Stojakovic

 

Russia has rejected concerns that it could try to influence Bosnia’s forthcoming elections, as fears of foreign meddling, ballot fraud and legal uncertainty cloud the run-in to parliamentary and presidential votes on October 7th.

The elections come at a time of resurgent geopolitical interest in the Balkans, as Macedonia prepares for a September 30th referendum on a name change that could open its path to Nato and EU membership, and debate rages over whether a controversial land swap could help Kosovo and Serbia establish normal relations.

Bosnia was divided into two “entities” after its 1992-1995 war, and Serb-run Republika Srpska favours closer ties with Moscow and is wary of the EU and Nato, while the Muslim-Croat Federation seeks full integration with the western alliances.

Montenegro joined Nato last year and Macedonia hopes to follow suit in 2019, if its name-change deal with Greece is approved in both countries this autumn, leaving Republika Srpska as a key foothold for Russia in a strategic region.

Kremlin links

Western diplomats worry that Moscow could offer election support, openly or covertly, to the nationalist Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik, who wants his region to leave Bosnia and has forged strong ties with the Kremlin.

On a much-anticipated visit to Bosnia, however, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov insisted his country was not throwing its weight behind Mr Dodik.

“We have our favourites – our favourites are the favourites of the Bosnian citizens. We never advise whom to vote for if we’re talking about elections in other countries,” he said on Friday.

“The approach of other external actors is absolutely unacceptable, when they try to force the people of the Balkans to make a choice – either with the West or with Russia,” he added.

Alongside his Bosnian counterpart Igor Crnadak, Mr Lavrov dismissed fears that Moscow could stoke Mr Dodik’s secessionist ambitions, and said there was “no alternative” to the Dayton peace agreement that ended fighting 23 years ago.

“We support Bosnia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and the powers granted by the constitution to its two entities and three constituent peoples,” he added, referring to its Serbs, Croats and Muslims (who are also known as Bosniaks).

Energy interests

Russian firms own significant energy interests in Republika Srpska, but Mr Crnadak said Moscow’s “special relationship” with the region “is no obstacle to the development of relations between Russia and the whole of Bosnia.”

Leaders from Bosnia’s three main communities seemed satisfied with Mr Lavrov’s visit, but Mr Dodik’s opponents will keep a wary eye on Moscow over the next fortnight, especially as Mr Dodik plans to visit Russian president Vladimir Putin shortly before the vote for at least their ninth meeting since 2011.

Bosnia’s multilayered post-war political system is fiendishly complex, dysfunctional and bureaucratic, factors which combine with corruption to fuel fears of election fraud. Officials are already reporting serious concerns over identity theft and outdated voter lists.

Moreover, an unresolved dispute about electoral law in the Bosniak-Croat Federation could paralyse efforts to form new governments in the entity and at state level after the vote.