Why Is China Fanning the Flames of Ethnic Politics in the Balkans?


The fragile geopolitical nature of the Balkans has allowed Russia to consistently undermine Western integration attempts in the region. While foreign interference is nothing new in Europe’s underbelly, it has historically been limited to regional powers and the U.S. But China’s recent collaboration with Russia in supporting ethnic separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) reveals that Beijing is happy to challenge the West and to highlight EU and NATO vulnerabilities within Europe. If Western pressure over China’s policies in Xinjiang and Taiwan increases, China’s enhanced coordination with Russia will further erode the West’s delicate balancing act in the Balkans.

Late last year, the current Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, intensified his claims that the Republika Srpska, the country’s Serb-populated entity, would seek an independence referendum. BiH’s tripartite presidential system, put in place by Western states in 1995 under the Dayton peace agreement, has afforded Dodik considerable power. Alongside his calls to “withdraw from numerous agreements reached after the civil war,” the parliament of Republika Srpska passed a series of laws that included enabling the territory “to form its own parastatal institutions and its own army by May [2022].”

Days after Dodik announced the possibility of secession, U.S. Western Balkans envoy Gabriel Escobar met with the Republika Srpska leader. After the threat of sanctions were brought up, Dodik stated, “Fuck the sanctions. I already went through that. If you want to talk to me, then stop threatening me,” revealing his growing disregard for U.S. diplomacy.

Republika Srpska’s Statehood Day, held on January 9, commemorates its declaration of independence from BiH in 1992. Though celebrating the day was ruled unconstitutional by a top court order in 2015, Bosnian Serbs have continued to “mark the anniversary of the founding” of Republika Srpska. On top of growing calls for independence within Republika Srpska, this year’s parade was also attended by Chinese and Russian embassy representatives (alongside Serbian officials), prompting immediate criticism from Sarajevo.

But Russia and China’s true intention was to send a message to the West. Rising tensions over Ukraine, Taiwan and Xinjiang have incentivized Moscow and Beijing to exploit Western geopolitical vulnerabilities. The affair on January 9 was simply the latest measure taken by Russia and China to challenge the West in BiH. In July 2021, Russia and China drafted a UN Security Council resolution that declared the services of the Bosnia High Representative, who oversees the implementation of the 1995 peace agreement in the region and is a position dominated by Western European and U.S. officials, were no longer required. Though the resolution was rejected, it was a clear swipe at Western efforts to regulate the divisions within BiH.

And while Moscow and Beijing are keen to discredit the existing international mechanisms that regulate Bosnian affairs, their efforts to assist Republika Srpska to achieve statehood are bolstered by the precedent already set by the West. In addition to supporting the self-determination of various states from Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the U.S. and the EU were also supportive of Montenegrin and Kosovan bids for independence in 2006 and 2008, respectively.

For years, Dodik has been able to count on support from Moscow to bolster his secession aspirations. But sensing the benefits of a partnership with China, Dodik has increased his public support for Beijing. In June last year, Dodik declared that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina was “not authorized to sign a joint statement regarding [the] human rights situation in China.” While criticizing the action by the ministry as “inadmissible and unacceptable,” he extended his support to China, stating, “I fully support the territorial integrity and integrity of the People’s Republic of China, as well as all actions it undertakes to preserve its sovereignty.”

Concern persists that a Republika Srpska bid for independence could inflame a new round of violence in BiH. Alongside Republika Srpska forces, foreign volunteers, provocateurs and mercenaries could also be sent in under the facade of travel or be flown into the region if conflict breaks out. Members of the Night Wolves, a Russian motorcycle gang that has fought in Ukraine, marched with Republika Srpska armed forces during the January 9 celebrations, and have made frequent road trips to the region in previous years. Several hundred fighters from Republika Srpska and Serbia have in turn traveled to Ukraine in recent years.

Western attempts to resolve instability by force also run the risk of confrontation with both the Serbian and Russian militaries. Emboldened by its actions in Ukraine and Syria over the last decade, the Russian military is also a far more formidable and competent adversary than it was in the 1990s. Western populations have largely lost their appetite for intervening in civil wars—let alone the specter of a renewed military confrontation with a nuclear power like Russia in another theater of Europe. Any indication of military support from China would further dampen the Western willingness to intervene.

Additionally, growing calls for Republika Srpska statehood would cause further delays to the EU and NATO expansion in the Balkans. Last October, Dodik stated during an interview with German news website Der Spiegel that the “Western Balkans have never been further from the EU [membership] than they are now.” This reflects the notion that while BiH’s accession to the EU hinges on the treatment of Serbs in the country, Serbia is similarly unlikely to join the EU if the institution unduly prevents a bid by Republika Srpska for secession.

A move toward secession and the ensuing unrest also has the potential to unravel the entire fragile post-Yugoslav ecosystem. In addition to emboldening Croatian calls for independence in BiH, Republika Srpska’s secession could inspire Albanians in North Macedonia and Serbs in northern Kosovo to increase their own attempts at seeking independence.

While agreements on local self-government, territorial autonomy and power-sharing in national institutions have been common strategies for conflict management in divided countries, they have also granted Republika Srpska the building blocks to independence. With growing support from Moscow and Beijing, Republika Srpska’s attempts to secede have become far more realistic. The recent declaration by Russia and China of a “no limits” partnership between these countries, among other areas of cooperation, called for an end to NATO expansion. Coupled with the efforts in BiH, it is clear that complicating NATO and EU growth in Europe is a key area where Russia and China can push back against the West and are likely to continue to do so in the future.

John P. Ruehl is an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. He is currently finishing a book on Russia to be published in 2022.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.


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