Seeing the words “referendum” and “Balkans” in the same sentence is always disconcerting. If the phrase “Swiss referendum” evokes images of voters selecting the optimal formula for calculating public sector pensions, a Balkan referendum conjures up fears of the wrong sort of civic mobilization. And in light of recent history, some may find the thought of Russia supporting this kind of vote all the more worrying. 

These dark associations may be why the actual issue on the ballot of the September 25 referendum in Republika Srpska, the autonomous Serb-run entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina, invited little scrutiny in advance. Regardless of the exact wording of the question, the probable outcome seemed clear. Serbs would vote in favor, everyone else would boycott it, and old ethnic divisions would rise to the surface. The whole process, meanwhile, would serve as a dry run for an independence vote that the republic’s leaders are threatening to hold in 2018. Some analysts even dramatically predicted that an independent Republika Srpska could become another Moscow-backed statelet, threatening the fragile peace that has persisted in Bosnia since the 1995 Dayton accords. 

Milorad Dodik, the longtime leader of Bosnia’s Serbs, was pelted with requests to cancel the referendum. The Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Valentin Inzko, the United States, Brussels, and even neighboring Serbia—which is largely ruled by nationalists who held top positions under Slobodan Milošević—all entreated Dodik to pull the plug. Only one country supported the vote: Russia. 

The question on the ballot looked fairly innocuous to an outsider. Residents of the republic were asked whether they wanted to continue to observe Statehood Day on January 9—the anniversary of Radovan Karadžić’s infamous 1992 declaration that Bosnia’s Serbs would be separating from Bosnia to remain in Yugoslavia. Around 56 percent of Bosnian Serbs turned up at the polls on September 25, and more than 99 percent voted yes. 

The poll was a response to a verdict issued last year by the Constitutional Court in Sarajevo, which ruled that Statehood Day should be replaced with a different holiday out of consideration for the Republika Srpska’s non-Serbs. The verdict wasn’t unusual for Bosnia, where the Constitutional Court keeps a watchful eye out for signs of discrimination in anthems, emblems, and place names. Some of its judgments are executed, some are implemented in ways that may exacerbate divisions, and some are simply lost in the wilderness of Bosnia’s tangled bureaucracy. 

This could have been the fate of the Statehood Day verdict, but Milorad Dodik had expended too much energy in building up his nationalist credentials to ignore the decision. Back in the 1990s, Dodik was a moderate, pro-Western politician who pushed Radovan Karadžić and his radical allies out of power with the help of the United States and the EU. But he later figured out that moderation did not go far in Bosnian politics. He began to insist on a level of autonomy for Republika Srpska that would preclude central authorities from imposing their decisions there. When this proved tricky, he aimed his sights—or at least his promises—higher. 

In 2015, Dodik and his SNSB party declared that if their demands for greater autonomy were not met by 2017, they would hold an independence referendum the following year. At the time, 2018 seemed far away, but the clock is ticking, and Dodik is feeling pressure to prove to voters that he is serious. The West and Belgrade have managed to talk him out of two previous attempts to hold referendums. Now, at his third attempt, Dodik is holding firm. 

Amid calls to axe the referendum, the Russian ambassador to Bosnia insisted that the Republika Srpska’s decision to hold the vote was a strictly internal matter. Then, just a couple of days before the vote, Vladimir Putin received Dodik personally in Moscow. According to Dodik, Putin repeated the line that the referendum was an internal matter, but many saw the meeting as a sign of Putin’s active support for the measure—largely because it was not clear what else the two men had to discuss.  

Russia’s intervention led to speculation that Moscow is trying to destabilize the region and even create another South Ossetia in the Balkans. In reality, the western Balkans has long been low on Russia’s list of priorities, and Moscow’s interest in the Republika Srpska is minimal. Russia is still the fourth largest investor in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the Russian FDI stock is only to the tune of about 0.5 billion euros. While the Ukraine crisis gave Bosnian Serb leaders hope of attracting more funding through demonstrating loyalty to the Kremlin, a series of Russian loan promises in 2014 and 2015 fell through. In August 2016, Russia showed just how much it values its economic ties with the Republika Srpska by banning Bosnian fruits and vegetables. This put an end to two years of booming agricultural exports to Russia—a consequence of Dodik’s refusal to let Sarajevo join the anti-Russian sanctions regime. 

So why did Moscow back the referendum, albeit indirectly? The answer is simple: there was no reason to oppose it. Russian diplomats consistently assert that states should not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs. In fact, their comments about the Bosnian referendum were roughly the same as their remarks on Great Britain’s Brexit vote.

Bosnia is a very low foreign policy priority for Moscow. But as far as the Kremlin is concerned, the EU has been destabilizing Russia’s immediate neighborhood and it has no reason to promote stability in the EU’s backyard. Why should it counsel Bosnian Serbs to cooperate with Sarajevo? So that Bosnia and Herzegovina can become a normal, manageable state—and then join NATO? Obviously, Russia wants to prevent that eventuality and if it can do so at low cost, with just an hour-long meeting with the Bosnian Serb leader, so much the better. 

Local politicians, not the Kremlin, instigated the referendum crisis in the Republika Srpska. And in Moscow’s view, Brussels bears much of the blame for the current situation: for twenty years, the EU has failed to propose a viable solution to the country’s painful ethnic divides. Moscow has no plans to make the crisis worse, but no desire to help solve it either.

  • Maxim Samorukov