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Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, concerns were raised about the impact on stability in the Western Balkans. The EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, Josep Borrell said that “Russia is not going to stop in Ukraine” expressing concerns for the Western Balkans and “particularly Bosnia, which could face destabilisation by Russia”.

In April 2024, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Mike Johnson said that he thought that Russia’s President Putin “would continue to march through Europe if he was allowed to” and “might go to the Balkans next time”.

Russian influence

Russia has maintained close relations with Serbia, and Bosnian Serb leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Although Serbia is a candidate for EU membership, Serbia has not aligned itself with EU sanctions against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. It has subsequently reached new agreements with Russia, including on gas supply and  foreign policy cooperation.

An article in the NATO review in 2020 described the Western Balkans as a particular target of Russian disinformation, with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia the most affected. It said frequent topics of disinformation operations include demonising the USA and NATO, presenting the EU “as weak and divided”; advertising “Russian military might” and amplifying “threat perceptions, myths and ethnic tensions”.

Secessionism in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Under the leadership of Milorad Dodik, the majority-Serb Republika Srpska (RS) territory in BiH has adopted an increasingly assertive separatist stance in recent years. This had led to warnings that the peace accords that ended the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s could unravel. In 2021, RS leaders launched a boycott of central BiH state institutions and Dodik has repeatedly threatened to declare RS independence from BiH. In early December 2023, Dodik said that he would declare RS independence if Donald Trump was re-elected US president in 2024.  RS has also disregarded decisions of the international High Representative for BiH, leading to an indictment by state prosecutors in 2023 and a trial which began in February 2024.  

In April 2024, Dodik said that the situation in BiH would change dramatically after 2 May when a draft UN resolution to declare 11 July the “International Day of Reflection and Remembrance of the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide”, is scheduled to be voted on by the UN General Assembly.

Dodik has visited Russia’s President Putin several times since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has obstructed attempts by BiH to align with EU sanctions against Russia. Dodik has been sanctioned by both the UK and USA. In June 2022, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that Bosnian Serb secessionism in BiH was “backed by Moscow as part of Putin’s drive to undermine both Bosnia’s Euro-Atlantic integration and its stability” and that the Western Balkans could not be allowed “to become another playground for Putin’s pernicious pursuits”.

The EU-led force (EUFOR) Operation Althea is currently deployed in BiH, on the basis of a UN Security Council mandate. The UK’s role in the Operation ended shortly after the UK left the EU in 2020.

Serbia and Kosovo

Russia has also backed Serbia’s position over Kosovo, with neither Serbia nor Russia recognising Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. The EU has brokered talks between Kosovo and Serbia, leading to a series of agreements aimed at normalising relations, most recently in 2023. However, these have not been fully implemented and tensions have escalated again since 2021, with both Russia and Serbia accusing Kosovo’s government of provocations. At the end of 2023, the NATO-led force in Kosovo (KFOR) was reinforced followed violent clashes in Serb-majority areas of Kosovo. 200 additional British troops were among the reinforcements, although their deployment has subsequently ended.  

In March 2022, shortly after Russia’ invasion of Ukraine, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that Kosovo would like to join NATO as soon as possible. He referred to Russian influence over Serbia and suggested this might be used to provoke a proxy conflict in the Western Balkans.

On a visit to the Western Balkans in November 2023, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the region is “strategically important to NATO but there are reasons for concern”. He stressed the importance of dialogue over “conflict and chaos” in the region and called for an end to secessionist movements in Bosnia and Herzegovina and for re-engagement by Serbia and Kosovo in EU-facilitated talks.

NATO and EU membership

Among Western Balkan countries, Albania (joining in 2009), Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020) are all members of NATO. These three countries were all added to a list of “enemy states” by Russia (alongside the EU, UK, USA and other allies) in early 2022 for aligning themselves with EU and international sanctions against Russia.

All Western Balkans states, bar Kosovo, are also candidates for EU membership. Accession talks with Montenegro and Serbia began in 2012 and 2014 respectively but have made little progress. After long delays, accession negotiations were also launched with Albania and North Macedonia in 2022, partly spurred by a renewed concern within the EU about Russian-influenced destabilisation in the Western Balkans in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In March 2024, EU leaders in the European Council also agreed to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina once it had taken steps to implement European Commission recommendations on reform.

Further reading

Commons Library briefing paper, Bosnia and Herzegovina: secessionism in the Republika Srpska

Commons Library briefing paper, Kosovo: developments since 1999 and relations with Serbia

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