di Paolo Quercia
Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Russia: the new Balkan Triangle
Russian President Medvedev has paid an official visit to Serbia at the same time of the 65th anniversary celebrations of Belgrade’s liberation during World War II. This is his second visit to Serbia during 2009, following his February visit which finalized the sale agreement of Serbian company NIS to Gazprom. The Serbs welcomed very warmly the Russian President who delivered a speech to the Serbian Parliament. All political parties passed positive remarks on this visit, from the radicals to the pro-West liberals of the G17+. Across-the-spectrum consensus on the relationship with Moscow is a very important factor due to the weaknesses of the political system, notably its volatility caused by endless squabbles which could lead to early elections. The Serbian press, too, has been all out for the Russian President’s visit and covered positively the issues discussed. Certain issues have now been settled, among which Russian support against Kosovar independence and the strengthening of cooperation in energy matters. But there are other issues which have opened or significantly strengthened certain matters. For instance, Serbo-Russian relations have been strengthened further on the financial front, with Moscow undertaking fresh commitments to help economically Belgrade’s finances. This has been received favourably due to the increasing financial difficulties Belgrade had to face in the last years due to the economic and financial crises. The details of the new Russian line of credit to Serbia have not been clarified as yet, although the Serbian press speaks of a loan of between one and one-and-a-half billion dollars. The terms of the loan, the repayment conditions and the investment sectors will be decided in the coming weeks during technical meetings held in Moscow. Meanwhile, it has already been announced that the Bank of Moscow, the Serbian subsidiary of the Russian bank formed to finance Russian investments in Serbia, has opened a line of credit to the tune of 200 million dollars to be used by the Serbian company NIS, recently acquired by Gazprom, which has a 51% controlling power.
The Serbian Parliament has been particularly pleased with that part of Medvedev’s speech in which he referred to the necessity of developing a regional security agreement between the EU and Russia. This view is to the Serbs’ liking as it would allow Belgrade to reconcile its privileged relations with Moscow and future EU adhesion without having to face the problem of relations with NATO. It is common knowledge that the link between these two situations (Belgrade’s accession to the EU and the commencement of a bilateral Russo-European security dialogue) lies with the attempt to arrive to a (highly improbable) reduction of the Americans’ role both in Europe and in the Western Balkan region.
The visit was accentuated by a novelty. The two governments decided to establish a joint “Emergency situation center” close to the southern Serbian town of Nis, on the border with Kosovo. News about this new centre are still coming in, but so far it would seem that it will be a Serbian logistic base created thanks to Russian financial help (and possibly know-how) with the aim of building a structure to carry out emergency interventions in the entire Balkan region, in the case of natural catastrophes (mostly fires, earthquakes, floods, etc.). According to sources, the structure should be able to carry out de-mining operations. The decision to create such a base represents a small but important novelty for the Russian presence in the region. Such a structure, in fact, is meant to operate outside Serbian territory. It is conceivable that a possible future use on a regional level can only be limited to the Republic of Srpska and Serb-controlled northern Kosovo. The use in the Serb Republic of Bosnia of such a unit – dealing mainly with de-mining operations – would have a mostly political and symbolical meaning, but very little practical or operational consequences. This unit will be operational within two years, and its use would raise problems if aimed at Kosovar territory as it would affect a frozen conflict zone with an ongoing delicate question of disputed borders and sovereignty, and delicate political balances. The entry into Kosovo of an emergency intervention unit of humanitarian civil protection, on the invitation not of the government of Pristina but, say, of a Northern Serbo-Kosovar local council, would constitute a potentially perilous situation best eschewed. Such an operational scenario would doubtlessly bring about high risks of potential accidents or provocations between humanitarian intervention units, Kosovar frontier police, EULES, KFOR, or any other of the numerous Kosovar pro-independence organizations who lie outside a precise control framework. Succinctly put, there would be the potential for the evolution of a Georgia-like situation on the field. Interventions would be fuelled by the fact that the Kosovo Serbs’ continued refusal to allow the entry of central or international bodies with civil duties would create an intervention vacuum for emergency situations to which the newly-founded “emergency situation center” might respond.
Meantime, EU and American efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina are failing to reduce the political tension stirred up in the last months and years. A meeting held in Butmir between all political forces of Bosnia-Herzegovina which should have brought about the levelling of differences ended up with the irreconcilability of stances and a return to the Dayton document. In other words, to the situation of not proceeding with political changes unless there is the consent of the three Bosnian constitutional nationalities. This necessary and possibly temporary change in the international community’s position was confirmed by EU High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina Inzko himself, who at the end of the Butmir meeting admitted that “changes in Bih can take place only with the consent of the representatives” of the three peoples. It is a victory for Dodik’s policy, followed in the last three years with Belgrade’s – and partially Moscow’s – support. More importantly, it represents the simultaneous failure of efforts, begun in 2005, to create a functioning State able to move ahead with EU and NATO integration.