Russia’s ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the Balkans

By on September 13, 2017

Russian influence in Serbia has been vehemently debated from a number of angles; financial investments (typically loans not grants), the latter’s failure to join sanctions regimes and joint-military exercises such as those of the ‘Slavic Brotherhood’. Yet it is the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in south east Serbia which has of late constituted the main bone of contention in relations between Serbia and the West.

The Center was established following a 2012 agreement between Russia’s Minister of Emergency Situations, Vladimir Puchkov, and Serbia’s then Interior Minister, Ivica Dacic. Its purpose was ostensibly to “to deal with natural and man-made emergencies,” a role it fulfilled with aplomb during the devastating 2014 floods in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Center’s website recounts how, “within two days, working day and night, Russian rescuers made 335 flights to the flooded areas of the city of Obrenovac, where situation was the worst, evacuated more than 2000 persons, including more than 600 children.” With forest fires becoming an increasingly regular occurrence, the Centre has continued to prove its worth.

The US, however, has expressed concern not only about the purpose of the Centre itself, but also about the special diplomatic status that could be afforded the Centre and its staff. Hoyt Brian Yee, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, told the Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, that he is concerned “not so much for what it [the centre] is now, but what it might become.”

The US has suggested that the Centre, located in close proximity to Kosovo (where American soldiers continue to be stationed), could function as a “spy outpost”; concerns that have been increasingly echoed by the EU. Though immediately denied, media reports earlier in the summer claimed that the EU and US were planning to finance a humanitarian centre of their own to rival the Russian provision of emergency response capabilities.

Belgrade has thus far withstood Russian pressure to grant the Centre and its personnel a special status; a stance that is likely to persist as the EU takes a more assertive stance against the Centre. Similar leverage cannot, however, be exerted upon Bosnia-Herzegovina’s second entity, the Republika Srpska (RS), which remains vulnerable to Russian influence and has frequently proposed a referendum on secession.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s path to NATO membership has long been impeded, in part, by the issue of military property registration. A recent constitutional court ruling rejected the RS’s claim to own military facilities near Han Pijesak in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, thereby obliging the entity to register the facility as state property. The RS has vowed to reject the Court’s ruling and other military properties have already been registered as the Entity’s property. RS Prime Minister, Zeljka Cvijanovic, claimed that “they want to seize the property of Republika Srpska.”

Ahead of the 2018 general elections, flirting with the prospect of a Russian-backed humanitarian centre will appeal to a RS’s leadership eager to show its nationalistic credentials, whilst allowing Moscow to reinforce its influence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Transforming one of these premises into a similar Humanitarian Center would have profoundly destabilising ramifications for Bosnia’s domestic politics.

The EU must therefore make it clear that any such move would lead to sanctions against leading decision-makers within the RS – similar to those enacted by the US following a referendum by the RS against a constitutional court ruling against the Entity’s January 9th celebrations – for again ignoring a decision of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Constitutional Court. Failure to do so will open-up a new front in the battle against Russian influence; one that would fatally undermine the country’s NATO aspirations and raise serious questions about its very sustainability.


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