With Friends Like These: Orbán's Balkan Allies

Autocratic brotherhood: Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in June 2023. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

EU and NATO leaders should make their red lines known to ensure Bosnia and Herzegovina’s security in the face of Viktor Orbán's backing of Serb secessionism.

Milorad Dodik, president of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian Republika Srpska (a majority Serb region), met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 21 February 2024. At the meeting, he complained about the US and the UK sanctions against him and his associates. Dodik also promised to prevent his country’s NATO membership and bragged about his ‘excellent relations with [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vučić and [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán’.

The three top politicians – Orbán, Vučić and Dodik – have built a brotherhood in the triangle between Budapest, Belgrade and Banja Luka. They share similar worldviews, authoritarian tendencies and comparable political paths. Their positions are quite aligned: from Russia and China to hopes for Donald Trump’s return to the White House.

This brotherhood, Dodik explained to Putin, made the relationship with the EU easier.

Indeed, Hungary is the most vocal opponent to the imposition of EU individual sanctions against Dodik and any restrictive measures against Serbia. Orbán’s man in Brussels, Olivér Várhelyi, has been an EU commissioner since 2019. He has significant influence over the disbursement of EU funds. As if that was not enough, earlier this year Hungary took over the command of the EUFOR Althea mission, a 1,600-strong EU-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For Orbán, this brotherhood shows that he is a leader capable of exporting his model of governance. There is, of course, also some economic interest involved. But for Vučić and Dodik, Orbán is their key ally and disrupter inside the two transatlantic alliances: the EU and NATO. Orbán is both their protector and promoter, someone who strengthens their position at home and gives their words and deeds a stamp of approval.

Take this year’s celebration of the Day of Republika Srpska.

On 9 January 1992 a group of ethnic Serbs left the first democratically elected parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina and decided to proclaim the Republika Srpska – the Serb Republic. Their primary aim was to carve out a mono-ethnic territory where Serbs would be a dominant majority. Their longer-term aim was to then unite it with neighbouring Serbia. To achieve this, the country’s multi-ethnic fabric had to be destroyed. What followed was the most brutal conflict in Europe since the end of Second World War. It culminated with genocide in Srebrenica, leaving some 100,000 dead, 2.2 million displaced and tens of thousands raped.

Since 2015, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina has repeatedly declared the celebration of this day to be unconstitutional. The country’s highest court ruled that this discriminates against non-Serbs living in that region. While the Republika Srpska retains its name – the Serb Republic – according to its constitution, it is no longer only that.

For Vučić and Dodik, Orbán is both their protector and promoter, someone who strengthens their position at home and gives their words and deeds a stamp of approval

One of the key aims set in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords signed by all warring sides was to restore the multi-ethnic character of the country. This required a large-scale return of displaced people and their property, persecution of war criminals, as well as making sure that constitutional and legal provisions provide equal rights for all ethnic groups and others throughout the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

With significant international military, financial and diplomatic efforts, much has been achieved since. Almost 20% of the population in the Republika Srpska are non-Serbs. Four out of six most important positions in the region’s executive, legislature and judiciary must be occupied by non-Serbs, as well as half of all regional ministries. Also, changing the region’s constitution is impossible without the support of non-Serbs siting in the upper chamber of the regional parliament.

Since Milorad Dodik’s first term as Republika Srpska’s prime minister in 1998, he has been an arch-pragmatist, always adapting his rhetoric and actions to the circumstances. He supported the return of displaced persons and the reconstruction of mosques when this looked inevitable. He supported comprehensive constitutional reforms when the US pushed them in 2006. He was also once in favour of the country’s NATO membership.

But whenever it looked more politically promising to embrace nationalist causes – denying the Srebrenica Genocide, challenging state institutions – he has done so.

Since 2015, Dodik has continually defied the Constitutional Court’s decision on the 9 January celebration. In 2016 he organised an illegal referendum, asking citizens to support his rejection of the court’s ruling. It took a coordinated diplomatic effort by the EU and NATO allies to convince neighbouring Serbia’s leadership to publicly state that it ‘did not support the referendum’. It was part of the West’s firm position to stand behind the Constitutional Court and its decisions, no matter how trivial or bizarre the issue might have seemed to some outsiders.

9 January has since turned into a parade of nationalistic celebrations and secessionist rhetoric, fully supported by Russia. In 2018, Anatoly Bibilov, then the Russian-backed president of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia, attended the 9 January celebration. He signed a cooperation agreement with Milorad Dodik and was quoted saying that ‘our two republics are like twins with identical strategic partnership with Russia’. Since 2019, members of the Night Wolves, the biggest Russian motorcycle club and a far-right group supporting the Kremlin, have become a regular feature of parades. In 2023, Putin was awarded the highest order of Republika Srpska and flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic were paraded.

In 2024, as in all years before, at the centre of this day was Milorad Dodik. Standing next to him was the Russian ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. But what was different is the regional and wider European context.

Serbia sent a large delegation led by the defence minister and leader of Vučić’s Serb Progressive Party. He was accompanied by the Chief of General Staff and several ministers. In his congratulatory letter, Vučić, who was not present in Banja Luka, wrote the usual and important assurance that he recognised Bosnia and Herzegovina within its current borders. But he then warned gloomily that Serbia and Republika Srpska would soon jointly face difficult times.

The Serb leaders bet on US disengagement and on a divided and hapless EU and NATO – and they see that from Ukraine to Nagorno-Karabakh it is military force, not diplomacy, that changes reality

One of Vučić’s ministers present in Banja Luka was awarded with a long and warm applause after saying that ‘Republika Srpska needs to exist as a state’. Aleksandar Vulin, a recently replaced director of Serbian intelligence agency, and Vučić’s former defence and interior minister, made it clear that several years ago the integrity of Republika Srpska was made the number one priority in Serbia's military doctrine. Vulin also said that ‘this generation of Serb politicians should work on making sure that no border exists’ between majority-Serb territories.

What was also different this year is that Orbán was awarded the same order of Republika Srpska that Putin received year before. Orbán gratefully accepted it and is expected to receive it in person later this month in Banja Luka. As the head of an EU and NATO government, Orbán’s embrace of Dodik’s narrative and anti-constitutional behaviour provides Dodik with additional credibility and political capital.

This is a dangerous development because Dodik and his closest associates can only convince the institutions in Republika Srpska of possible secession if he has clearly visible support from outside. That is why the EU and NATO must now show Budapest and Belgrade the red lines. Hungary is even more important in this arrangement because it can use its veto to protect both Republika Srpska and Serbia from Western sanctions and interventions.

In his recent interviews, Dodik spoke at length about the need for Serbs to use the potential return of Trump in the White House to push towards unification of Serbia and Serb-majority territories, from north Kosovo to Republika Srpska. According to him, the Americans ‘are wounded beast. They have left Afghanistan, they were crushed in Syria. They rallied the West against Russia in Ukraine and they are being crushed there as well. We must understand that this is the key moment’.

In parallel, Serbian leaders in Belgrade are rearming. Since Vučić came to power in 2012, Serbia’s military budget has almost tripled, from €500 million in 2013 to €1.4 billion in 2023. This makes it larger than that of all other five Western Balkan countries combined. In 2023 alone, Serbia spent €600 million on new weapons and equipment, and its military industry’s exports were worth over €1.5 billion.

The Serb leaders bet on US disengagement and on a divided and hapless EU and NATO. And they see that from Ukraine to Nagorno-Karabakh it is military force, not diplomacy, that changes reality.

On 24 September 2023 in north Kosovo, Serb paramilitaries have returned – using force. They were praised as heroes in Serbia and Republika Srpska, with vocal support from Russia. In the days that followed, the US government warned that it had detected ‘an unprecedented staging of advanced Serbian artillery, tanks, and mechanized infantry units, along the border with Kosovo’.

Since then, the Serb Armed Forces have partially retreated. But as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned on 26 January 2024: the situation ‘remains unstable’. This is an ever more dangerous spiral of escalation.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Adnan Ćerimagić

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