Bakh: Russia prefers conflict in the Balkans to bargain with the West

Uliana Bakh, co-founder of the Ukrainian-Balkan Network for Cooperation, interview for Danas (Serbia), English version published in the Geopost.

I think that this situation in Sarajevo is one of the manipulations that Russia is now using through Serbia, which is actually achieving Russian goals,” Uliana Bakh, co-founder of the Ukrainian-Balkan Network for Cooperation, told Danas in an interview.

Recently in the Ilidža neighbourhood of Sarajevo, an attack on the FK Zvezdara team took place, leaving one person slightly injured. Shortly after the attack, ten people were arrested and taken to the Sarajevo Canton Prosecutor’s Office.

Our interlocutor lives on the Ukraine-BiH route and is very familiar with the situation in the Balkans, but also with the ‘tricks’ used by Russia in our region and the so-called ‘soft power’ tactics of the Kremlin.

On Monday night, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic tried to portray the event in Sarajevo on television as an attack on the Serbs. At the beginning of the year, we also had the incident in Kosovo when a boy and a young man of Serbian nationality were injured, which was again characterized as an attack on Serbs. How do you see all this?

The scenario in Sarajevo looks absolutely like a manipulation, and I am convinced that Russia is doing in the region what it has been doing in Ukraine not only since 2014, but even before that. I am thinking here, first and foremost, of the artificial imposition of inter-ethnic national conflicts.

At the very beginning of the destabilisation in Ukraine, there was talk about the Russian language being under threat and violence being perpetrated against Russians, but here they are simply trying to create inter-ethnic incidents to prove that Serbs are under threat.

They tried to create a similar conflict situation in Kosovo in December, but they did not quite succeed, but that does not mean that they will not try again.

On 9 January, we saw what happened here in East Sarajevo – the parade on the unconstitutional Republika Srpska Day, the awarding of a decoration to Vladimir Putin and then this incident. This is not, in fact, the only incident – the first was during the New Year holidays, when the tyres of a car with Serbian number plates were punctured.

The football tournament has been held for 15 years, I think, and this is the first time that there has been an excessive situation. That it is a coincidence is really hard to believe. The only one who will gain in this situation is Russia.

I follow media reports, various sources, Balkan and Russian media and see how they present it. They completely take over the narrative about the threat of Serbia and have made a big, big deal out of this situation in Sarajevo. In their Telegram channels, the media presented this as a huge incident, great hatred towards Serbs. Of course, nobody liked this incident.

Nevertheless, the perpetrators were arrested very quickly.

Yes, the perpetrators were arrested quite quickly, and the Mayor of Sarajevo, Benjamina Karic, reacted. I liked very much that Danas published the article, that we have to ask ourselves who taught the children to shout like that.

I think that security experts should investigate whether there was manipulation by a russian agency and how this incident occurred. The attackers were also young people, 20-year-old children, and it is all a strange situation.

How much is the public in BiH, Serbia and the region aware of everything?

In general, I think that the situation in Serbia and BiH is such that people are not very aware of what Russian interests are in the region, how the Russian agency works and what this hybrid war looks like. Because somehow, when people hear the word ‘agency’, they still think that these are some mysterious, masked guys.

But in general, Russia has its agents, and they are not Russians, they are local people who work for them, and they are also supported by politicians who are corrupt. It is often said: ‘Europe has failed to bring democracy to Russia, but Russia has succeeded in bringing corruption to Europe’.

The Balkans in general have a problem with corruption, and Russia makes much use of this, and it is easy to identify all the agents and politicians who work exclusively in Russia’s interests. They are not looking after any national interests, but are working exclusively with Russian partners for their own personal gain.

Alongside them, the Balkans are full of agents, gathered in different organisations. These are various cultural associations, humanitarian organisations, but in fact they are nests of so-called “soft power”, such as the Russian-Serbian Cultural Centres, the Russian Homes, the Humanitarian Centre in Niš, etc.

They are funded by Rossotrudnichestvo (cf. the autonomous Russian federal government agency under the jurisdiction of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), which is an extended arm of the Kremlin, and then there is the Russian Peace Foundation, the Gorchakov Foundation and other oligarchs who are already here and planning various projects.

One of the focal points of their malign influence is the youth in Serbia, but also in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. These are propaganda programmes to rewrite history and create a parallel reality.

Last year in February there was a gathering of different academics in Russia and they presented research and conclusions about the war in BiH in a way that in Sarajevo it was not as difficult as the West presents, that it was a demonization of Serbs.

As for Srebrenica, they have also consistently supported the narrative that the genocide in Srebrenica did not happen and that it was committed simply in a very deliberate move aimed at destabilising the Balkans.

Given the reactions of the West, can we say that Russia has defeated the West in the Balkans?   We are witnessing the narrative about the alleged Western pressure on Vučić, his alleged resistance, about Serbia as a factor of stability in the region, about Serbia, where there is no corruption, in all the countries of the region there is corruption.

Let us first return to the incident that took place in Sarajevo. Some European embassies and statements actually show that they have fallen for this Russian or Serbian propaganda about violence based on ‘national hatred’.

I wonder whether they really do not understand what the problem is and that it is manipulation. I am sorry that the West has not learnt from Ukraine and that there is a hybrid war going on in the Balkans and that such games are extremely dangerous.

I really still hope that they will start to react effectively, even though this is not the case in any Balkan country at the moment. Western diplomats should not only react to these moves, but they are expected to be ahead of Russia, and they seem to be sleeping.

This is also happening in Serbia – the EU, for example, is not looking too closely and is not doing much about the disinformation, media articles and propaganda that is going on. In Montenegro, we see a critical situation, we do not know what is going to happen after the elections, the pro-Russian and pro-Serb messages have already started, but there are no reactions to them.

The same in BiH, sanctions were imposed against Dodik six years ago, and Dodik has never been in a stronger position in the last ten years.

Now he even celebrated January 9 in East Sarajevo “right under the noses” of the EU and the American embassy, and again there is no strong reaction other than statements of “deep concern”.

The West must come to its senses and understand that they must be strongly involved in the protection of democracy and the prevention of conflicts. Just expecting the local governments to do something here and “come to an agreement among themselves” is not possible as long as Russia dominates with its influence.

If Russia succeeds in doing what it wants to do – to set fire to the Balkans – the people will, of course, pay the consequences first and foremost, as in Ukraine, but the West will also bear the strong consequences of all this. And, as far as the Ukrainians are concerned, the West has been rather slow in supplying the weapons they need, and the conflict in the Balkans will slow this down even further.

Russia’s greatest fear is that the West will step up its support for Ukraine with arms and sanctions, but they also know that a conflict in the Balkans would slow down support for Ukraine considerably.

On the other hand, the Russian ambassadors in the Balkans, through their statements, are trying to create a vision of Russia as a superpower and that they are somehow keeping the peace here.

In this way, they create a position for themselves that they can bargain with the Balkans with the West. They benefit from Dodik’s rhetoric in BiH, as he talks more and more about separatism, refusing to join NATO and disrespecting the decisions of the Supreme Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and other state institutions.

I don’t know in BiH what we can expect from Dodik, what kind of moves, because his rhetoric is now very dangerous, more and more talk about separatism, that the RS will go independent and the like. At the same time, justifications for this are being created in the public sphere.

He can always use the fact that “Serbs are hated in Sarajevo” as a reason for the independence of the Republika Srpska. In fact, he creates this vision through his statements and actions, and this is one of the arguments on the basis of which he can launch, for example, a referendum or some similar move with the wholehearted support of Russia.

In the light of all this, the least that the West could do is to impose harsh sanctions to remove pro-Russian politicians from the scene and to give stronger support to politicians and civil society that are genuinely fighting for democracy and human rights and against Russian influence.

Unfortunately, the West is currently pretending that everything is fine, and they are just saying that we need to talk more to Vucic, to Dodik, to Serbia, and then everything will calm down. At the same time, through their development agencies, they are investing in projects that strengthen destabilising forces and retrograde policies. This is absolutely the wrong policy.

You mentioned the EU’s inaction on disinformation and media propaganda in Serbia. Let me remind you that the recent Russian attack on an apartment building in Dnieper was portrayed in the Serbian regime media as an attack by Ukraine on its own citizens. What is the weapon against this kind of propaganda?

When we talk about propaganda, it is not just media writing, it is a very complex thing. It is necessary to build awareness among people, especially politicians and civil society, the one that still exists! In general, the first step is to put propaganda under the spotlight, to know how the agency works, to know that propaganda is not just what we see in the media, but much deeper, to know that the stories that Russia tells about the eternal history of cooperation between the Serbs and the Russians, two brotherly peoples, these are all mythologies. That is primary.

Secondly, we, the people who live here, need to demand from the West that it get more involved, the EU, America, Britain should be here as much as possible, because without their help, their intervention, and they have a lot of mechanisms of influence, it is impossible for the situation here to calm down and somehow improve.

So to talk about this as much as possible and work with the diplomatic corps in all the Balkan countries, not only with the diplomats who are there, but also with the diplomats in the countries of origin.

We must not be ashamed or hesitant to seek and receive help from the West. Let us recall the situation after the Second World War. America, with its help, raised all of Europe, including Russia, from the ashes.

The war in Ukraine is a war that concerns the whole world and Europe in particular.

The defeat of Russia is predicted, but until that happens, what can we expect in the Balkans?

As long as Russia is not defeated, it can do a lot of bad things in Europe. It is not going to be defeated just like that. It is important to understand what a defeated Russia means – for Ukraine, a defeated Russia means that it will be completely blocked from any other conflict or influence in the decades to come, and that will be defeat.

Therefore, it is not a defeat if it only withdraws from Ukrainian territory. Russia also now understands that everything has gone too far and they will use all possible methods in the Balkans as well.

I really take this situation very seriously and I think that it (Russia) can strike beyond Ukraine into Europe and the future of democracy throughout the world. The Balkans must be seen through this perspective and Russia must not be allowed to play games with the Balkans.

As a Ukrainian, I am amazed at the people of Sarajevo – Serbia has never officially apologised to them or acknowledged what happened in the 1990s, and yet the people of Sarajevo have a very high level of understanding and tolerance, all people from Serbia are always welcome, I have never heard here that there is any hatred, speaking in a bad tone, speaking in a negative way, I just refuse to believe that what happened in Illidja is an interethnic situation, some kind of hatred. This is just an attempt to ignite a conflict.

Do you see the possibility of conflict or will this hybrid warfare go as far as possible?

If you put the puzzle together after January 9, after the imposition of the inter-ethnic incidents in Sarajevo, I really do not rule out the possibility of some kind of armed conflict. I really do not rule out the possibility.

I sincerely hope that it does not come to that, I am not a military expert, I cannot assess the balance of forces and weapons. However, something can always be brought to the border of an entity with which an armed conflict starts, and I think that is the objective.

Especially since a hybrid conflict is not so much in Russia’s interest. An active conflict here would suit them best at the moment. They tried in Kosovo, it is calm there now, but that is not the end of the story, it was an attempt at a very hot conflict.

The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Dodik’s rhetoric are very, very dangerous. As long as he is in the position that he is in, that is, being allowed to do what he wants, there is no peace here. Even when the SNSD takes over the intelligence sector as announced, the politicians of the Troika or the Eight cannot and will not be able to resist it.

There is still talk of Dodik as an unavoidable factor, and if he is an unavoidable factor, you as politicians should change that factor, not accept it.

Let us return to propaganda. You said that we need to look at this in a much broader way. Can we see the Open Balkans as part of Russian propaganda?

I have a policy – if Russia supports something, then it is not good. Quite simply, if Russia has said it is good, we should run away from it. And they have only supported this initiative.

This Open Balkans initiative is very unclear to me what its purpose is, if we have the Berlin Process in parallel, it is not well developed, it is not clear whether all countries will be equal. In Montenegro, we had the unusual situation where a critical analysis of the Open Balkans was removed from the government’s website overnight, so that it was not visible in anticipation of the consequences.

The Open Balkans is an initiative that only brings something positive to a certain extent, but it is increasingly seen as a platform that strengthens Serbia’s role and increases Russia’s influence on the Balkan countries.

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January 2023
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