The militarization of policing in Bosnia-Herzegovina – new dimensions of Russian involvement

By on June 23, 2016

The trend

Defence and security sector reforms have been key elements of international community efforts to stabilize and transform Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, reform of the armed forces – notably the unification of the country’s military – has long been hailed as one of the major successes of the post-war period.

Bosnia’s policing and intelligence structures, however, remain fragmented and subject to political influence. Police reform has fallen short of expectations, especially efforts to centralise and rationalise policing structures. The decentralized structure bestowed upon Bosnia by the Dayton Peace Agreement means that many policing functions are the responsibility of either the country’s two entities, or the Federation’s ten Cantons. The state’s role is limited to international and inter-entity law enforcement, plus immigration.

Fundamental police reform has been challenged, in particular by the Republika Srpska, despite the international community investing substantial resources (a dedicated EU Police Mission (EUPM) was deployed until 2012). Police reform was made one of the key conditions for the country’s EU accession prospects, despite the absence of a consensus on policing models across the EU.

Though long the preserve of the UN and EU, recent developments in the Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two entities, point to a new actor in the internal security domain, and a form of intervention that qualifies as a new dimension of Russian involvement in the Balkans.


The state of play – a new dimension of Russian engagement in Bosnia-Herzegovina

In February 2016 it was announced that special units of the Republika Srpska police were to be trained in Russia, specifically on investigation techniques, including forensic and DNA analysis. The trainings are part of a protocol signed in 2015 between the Russian and Republika Srpska Interior Ministries. The protocol also outlines agreements on information exchanges, especially pertaining to narcotics and human trafficking.

Several months later, Spetsnaz units – which are under the control of the military intelligence service, and are understood to have taken part in operations in Syria and Ukraine – are understood to have arrived in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska. Several sources questioned whether the purpose of the Spetsnaz presence in Bosnia was solely for training purposes, or whether they had other more destabilizing objectives by increasing the entity’s military potential. Others argued that such military units should have been prevented from entering Bosnia, and that the Entity did not have competence in this area.

In addition, the Republika Srpska has expressed its interested in purchasing military equipment, including armored vehicles equipped with water cannons and Kalashnikov rifles, to be deployed for Crowd and Riot Control purposes. Though ostensibly to support the fight against terrorism, the agreement between the Russian and Republika Srpska interior ministries raise concerns about the independence, transparency and accountability of policing structures.

The February 2014 protests which swept across the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (the other of the country’s entities) demonstrated weaknesses in policing, especially the use of excessive force. As social discontent rises, there is a growing fear that increasingly militarised policing structures will be used by incumbent elites to target their political opponents.

Police cooperation has long been a source of tension in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina. As recently as December 2015, a raid by the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) in Novi Grad, a town in Republika Srpska, related to alleged war crimes, lead to the entity government suspending its cooperation with the state-level institution (along with the State Court and Prosecutor’s Office). The Republika Srpska argued that the failure to inform the entity about the raid violated a previous agreement and the Entity’s sovereignty.

Back in December 2014, the Republika Srpska government was condemned by Reporters Without Borders after a raid by Republika Srpska regular and anti-corruption police on the premises of, a news portal. The aim of the search was to identify the source of a recording, alleged to be of the Republika Srpska’s prime minister, Željka Cvijanović, confessing to vote buying during the contested 2014 elections.

The police in the Republika Srpska are increasingly seen as a “protector” of particularistic interests, namely those of the incumbent elites, whose respective positions have been undermined by popular protests, poor electoral performance and persistent allegations of corruption. Strengthening political control over policing structures, including with Russian support, is prompting concerns that opposition parties and voices could be the target of domestic campaigns of intimidation, with popular protests subject to more aggressive forms of Crowd and Riot Control.


Where do we go from here?

Since the closure of the EU Police Mission (EUPM) in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2012, the topic of police reform has continued to slip further down the agenda. Fundamental legislative reform which would rationalise policing structures has now been taken completely off the table, and is unlikely to be revitalised anytime soon. The prevailing policing structures will persist for a considerable time to come, though the international community must continue to emphasise the shortcomings and deficiencies of such structures.

Despite the political impasse, the international community needs to scrutinise the purpose of such trainings and whom they are being conducted why. Whilst international exchanges are a vital part of raising domestic standards, the involvement of such highly-specialised military units needs to be cautioned. The EU should simultaneously ramp-up its own support to cross-border exchanges, especially in areas that provoke considerable concern in Bosnia, such as intelligence gathering and sharing of relevance to combating terrorism.

The international community must also move quickly to prevent the possible establishment of a centre for emergency situations in the Republika Srpska, akin to the so-called “humanitarian centre” established by Russia’s Ministry for Emergency Situations in south Serbia in 2011. Ostensibly designed to strengthen Serbia’s ability to tackle floods and forest fires, the centre has raised the spectre of a Russian military presence in the heart of the Balkans. The creation of a similar centre in Republika Srpska would have a destabilizing impact on the entire country.

The diversification of Russian involvement in the security sphere suggests a new dimension of its consolidated presence in the Western Balkans. The protocol on police cooperation between Russia and Republika Srpska outlines new forms of cooperation and assistance that have more day-to-day ramifications than cooperation Russia has enjoyed with various countries in the defence sphere. If the EU and other international organizations don’t quickly respond, then a vital plank of statebuilding will be exploited by interests regularly opposed to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s European accession.

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