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Russian-Chinese Crisis Alliance in the Balkans

Riddle Russia on how Moscow and Beijing confront the «collective West» in BiH and Kosovo

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Photo: Scanpix

Russia and China are stepping up pressure on Western partners in the escalating crisis over Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), with Beijing’s rising activity on this front being noticed for the first time since the end of the war in the 1990s. While the EU and the USA are trying to convince Bosnian Serbs to end the blockade of government authorities, Moscow and Beijing are seeking an early end to the international administration, vested with special powers. The conditions for winding down its work have not been met, but Russia and China insist that external tutelage is no longer necessary because the country is sufficiently stable.

Moscow and Beijing have announced non-recognition of the new international administrator in BiH. However, it is unclear whether they plan to block the operation of EUFOR forces in the UN Security Council or not. Meanwhile, the «Russian-Chinese alliance» in the post-conflict region has no clear prospects. Unlike Moscow, Beijing does not oppose the expansion of NATO and the EU. Its interests are more related to economic projects. Moreover, China continues to oust Russia from the list of significant partners of the Balkan countries.

The decision by Moscow and Beijing to refuse to cooperate with the new High Representative (international administrator) for Bosnia and Herzegovina Christian Schmidt, who took office on 1 August, is the first public step of its kind in all 25 years of post-war settlement in the Balkans. Russia and China agreed to support Schmidt’s candidacy only in exchange for early termination of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) as early as in 2022. At the same time, they demanded that the international administrator be stripped of his special powers, which allow him to make binding decisions and dismiss officials and judges without the right to appeal. Meanwhile, Western partners believe that it is too early to close the OHR as the country has failed to meet the conditions known as the «5+2» plan.

Russian diplomacy, which agreed to this plan in 2008, now believes that phrases such as «strengthening the rule of law» and «positive assessment of the situation in BiH» are too vague and they are «abused» by Western countries. Moscow believes the Office of the High Representative is being used to carry out tasks unrelated to the Dayton Peace Accords (1995). Russia is not satisfied with the promoted slogan «less Dayton, more Brussels,» or with the list of priorities related to the application for EU membership. Part of the «priorities» concerning the powers of the country’s two territorial entities (Republika Srpska and the Federation of BiH) runs counter to the Dayton Accords, Moscow claims.

Resolution without support

An attempt by Russia and China to get the UN Security Council to roll back the international administration in BiH failed this summer because their joint resolution was not supported. However, Moscow and Beijing retain leverage over the peace process both in the UNSC and directly in the region.

Moscow has long disagreed with its Western partners on the threats in Bosnia and interpretations of the Dayton Accords. As for Beijing, it has not been involved in the peacekeeping disputes in that country so far. While Russia has been demanding the closure of the Office of the High Representative for over a decade, China has preferred to refrain from making critical remarks in that regard. Now, the tone of Chinese statements has changed. According to the Chinese ambassador to the UN, the appointment of Christian Schmidt which bypassed the Security Council «could have negative consequences.»

The claim made by two influential powers, Russia and China, that the representative charged with overseeing the implementation of the peace agreement after the bloodiest conflict in Europe in recent decades is a demarche, aimed primarily at discrediting Washington’s efforts as the architect of Dayton peace. Quite clearly, Bosnia is a country with a key US and EU influence, both of which are major contributors to the peace settlement and reconstruction. The main financial contributors are the EU, the USA and Japan, which have provided aid worth 6 billion euros over 20 years. On the other hand, the Russian-Chinese contribution in terms of post-war financial assistance rather than investments is unknown.

Helping Dodik, the separatist?

Schmidt has been denied recognition by a total of three players: in addition to China and Russia, he was denied by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who enjoys support at the Kremlin and periodically announces plans for the independence of Republika Srpska (one of two territorial entities in BiH), although the Dayton Accords and the country’s constitution do not provide for a secession. Bosnian Serbs are the most frequent critics of the High Representative’s decisions, which become effective immediately and cannot be appealed against. Since its establishment, the Office of the High Representative has dismissed some 140 officials, including judges, ministers, civil servants and Members of Parliament. At times, these dismissals, which occurred mostly in the 1990s and early 2000s, were accompanied by the freezing of their bank accounts.

In recent months, Dodik announced he was cutting off Serb participation in state-level institutions and began preparations to withdraw from numerous agreements reached after the civil war, including one on a unified army and intelligence services. He has threatened to repeal 140 laws imposed by the international administration on the territory of Republika Srpska and to expel Bosnian judges and prosecutors.

The formal reason behind Dodik’s anger was the adoption of a law, inspired by Schmidt’s predecessor Valentin Inzko, to criminalise the denial of genocide and other war crimes. This law especially concerns the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 that the International Court declared as genocide in 2007 (Dodik himself used to call it «indisputable» that what had happened in Srebrenica was genocide but he gradually abandoned that position and called for a new investigation). For Dodik’s political opponents in the Serbian camp, his separatist pledges represent a road into the unknown that threatens peace and stability. However, Dodik himself feels quite confident: after all, Moscow’s long-standing efforts to marginalize the international administration are now joined by the «world’s number two player,» i.e. China.

No Chinese participation

The People’s Republic of China has increased its presence in the Balkans in recent years through large-scale economic projects and vaccination diplomacy, but its influence on the peace settlement in the region’s most complicated country has not been visible so far. China was not involved in drafting the Dayton Agreement and is not a member of the Peace Implementation Council (which it left in 2000), which includes 55 countries and organisations that support the peace process through funding or provision of military troops.

China has never participated in the work of the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council, which includes, in addition to Russia, countries such as Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the USA, as well as the country current presiding over the European Union, the European Commission and the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation, represented by Turkey. It is the Steering Board that discusses all the major issues related to the peace settlement and approves the High Representative (international administrator). Incidentally, Russia was the only country in the Board that did not support Schmidt’s candidacy, and only China joined its position in the UN.

Interestingly, Moscow has not supported a single joint statement in the Steering Board in recent years despite the fact that each of them contains a reaffirmation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of BiH and a condemnation of separatist and nationalist rhetoric. The most recent example is Moscow’s refusal to support the communiqué on the obligation of elected representatives to participate in all governing bodies.

Mandate of EUFOR, the European forces

The diplomatic blow that Schmidt received from Moscow and Beijing at the very start will clearly not improve the possibilities of resolving the acute political crisis. It remains to be seen what future plans Moscow and Beijing have and how strong their «crisis alliance» in the Balkans will be. Are they ready to continue confronting the UN Security Council and blocking (in November or later) the extension of the mandate of the European EUFOR, which engage in peacekeeping and de-mining in BiH?

This scenario cannot be ruled out, especially given that in 2014, amidst the crisis over the annexation of Crimea, Moscow refrained from extending the mandate of the EUFOR, as if to send a signal to its opponents that it is no longer confident that a peacekeeping mission is needed. Although a possible veto in the UN Security Council would not lead to a security vacuum in Bosnia (the EU and NATO have consistently reaffirmed their long-term commitments to the country), an intensification of the internal crisis in the country would be inevitable.

EUFOR was deployed in 2004 following NATO’s decision to end Operation SFOR, which had begun in 1995. The European operation is conducted using NATO’s assets and capabilities, and its focus in recent years has shifted to training the BiH Armed Forces. Although the multinational battalion has only a few hundred personnel at present, EUFOR is able to quickly bring in reserve forces.

Impact on the situation around Kosovo

In addition to the Bosnian settlement, Moscow and Beijing continue to influence the situation around Kosovo by opposing the West and opposing the integration of the rebellious province into the global community. At the diplomatic level, Russia and China are more active than other countries in defending the territorial integrity of Serbia and thwarting Kosovo’s attempts to become a full-fledged state after declaring its independence in 2008. It is clear that UN membership is possible only with the consent of Moscow and Beijing. It will not be easy for the Kosovo authorities to obtain it, regardless of the course of the normalisation process between Belgrade and Pristina, initiated in in 2011.

A possible resolution of Serbia’s relations with Kosovo in the coming years would not mean an end of the confrontation between Moscow and Beijing against Washington and other supporters of Kosovo independence.

As with Bosnia, China prefers calmer rhetoric in the Kosovo case. This is in opposition to Moscow, which often accuses Kosovo Albanians of provocations and actively engages in discrediting Kosovo’s political elite. In the midst of the September crisis in Belgrade-Pristina relations over the use of license plates, Russian ambassador to Belgrade Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko inspected Serbian army units that had been placed on alert. His presence, as a representative of a nuclear power near Kosovo, was probably meant to make Serbia’s opponents more accommodating. Chinese diplomats do not participate in such actions.

The economy prevails

The proximity of political assessments of the situation around Bosnia and Kosovo does not turn Moscow and Beijing into allies in the Balkans as yet. On the one hand, China’s increased activity on the Bosnian issue in the UNSC has shown that this country is trying to take a more confrontational stance towards the West and, in this sense, relies on cooperation with Russia, which has behaved in a similar fashion in the region for many years. On the other hand, China does not try to influence the interethnic relations in the region in any noticeable way or to hinder integration processes. In contrast, Moscow is quite openly manipulating the differences and fears of various national groups and rolls out propaganda against NATO and the EU.

To date, Beijing’s interests have been mainly related to economic projects. Through its One Belt, One Road initiative, China has recently expanded its partnership with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and Serbia. Beijing is willing to invest billions in infrastructural projects, while Moscow cannot afford new large-scale projects. The difference in economic significance is particularly noticeable in Serbia, which is a strategic partner of both Russia and China.

The value of Serbian-Chinese infrastructural projects has already reached EUR 15 billion. In Serbia’s foreign economic relations, China currently comes third (after Germany and Italy) with a mutual trade volume of USD 3.7 billion. Russia holds the fourth place (USD 2.5 billion), slightly ahead of countries such as Hungary and Romania. The volume of Russian investments in Serbia is estimated at USD 3 billion.

Russia’s and China’s increased activity in the Balkans is often linked with the reduced attention to the region from the USA and the EU, as well as and the slowdown of European integration. At the same time, the opaqueness of Moscow’s and Beijing’s policies means that many experts are concerned about the advancement of the two countries in the region. The aspirations of both Russia and China to play a more prominent role in the post-war settlement in the Balkans have not yet affected the security situation. However, in the political sense, their attempt to accelerate the dismantling of the international presence in Bosnia against the backdrop of increasing disintegration processes has had negative consequences. The coming months will show whether Moscow and Beijing are ready to go even further in the political confrontation with Washington and other guarantors of peace in the Balkans. However, the EU and NATO have enough leverages to counterbalance the negative trends.

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