Could Ukraine be another Bosnia?

Analysis: Putin can’t win Kiev back, but he might be satisfied with a geopolitically ambiguous Bosnia-style solution

A member of a Serbian Chetnik paramilitary group, mans a checkpoint on the highway between Simferopol and Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula on Thursday. Serbian paramilitaries have offered their help to pro-Russian self-defence volunteers who set up road blocks on the main road to the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

Shortly after tens of thousands of Russian troops invaded Crimea under the auspices of protecting their Russian compatriots in the region, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a rhetorical rebuke to Moscow: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in a 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext."

But another interpretation is that Putin’s seemingly indecipherable strategy for dealing with the strategic setback Russian suffered when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown draws inspiration from a much more recent era — the 1990s — in a volatile, ethnically divided country once in Russia’s sphere of influence: Bosnia and Herzegovina. The bloody and chaotic process by which the former Yugoslav republic separated from Belgrade may hold clues to Russia’s intentions in Crimea and the wider Ukraine.

“Putin’s current strategy is not one of land grabbing but one of state-re-building,” argued Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, in an op-ed for Prospect magazine. “The Kremlin’s vision for Ukraine’s future is that it becomes a 'Greater Bosnia' — a state that is radically federalized with its constituent parts allowed to follow their natural cultural, economic and geopolitical preferences.” In other words, Russia might have in mind a strategy of "divide and neutralize," a prospect that would have farther reaching implications for the new leaders in Kiev than merely losing Crimea.

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After four years of sectarian warfare initiated by the Serbian-dominated government of President Slobodan Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb allies against Bosniak Muslims and Croats, the international community finally brokered an end to the conflict through the 1995 Dayton agreement, which formalized the pre-existing division of Bosnia into two entities: The Bosniak Federation, split between Bosniaks and Croats, and the Republika Srpska, or Serb Republic. Each has its own president, parliament, and police force, and the state of Bosnia’s presidency rotates between the three ethnic groups. 

Milosevic may have died in a prison cell at The Hague, but his legacy is visible in post-Dayton Bosnia. The country has survived intact for two decades under the agreement, which was meant to temporarily guide the country towards sustainable democratic development but instead has institutionalized a delicate ethnic balance where no party is able to steer the country in one direction. Corruption and clientelism are rampant, and integrative democracy has been all but abandoned in favor of ethnic nationalism. Due largely to the lack of a cohesive central government, Bosnia’s path to European Union membership has all but stalled.

“In Bosnia, you have a nonfunctioning state, a state that is in permanent crisis,” said Milan Nic, Executive Director of the Central European Policy Institute in Bratislava. “Without strong central institutions, you can slow down any kind of European integration.” Such an outcome in Ukraine would jibe neatly with Moscow’s goals, according to a number of analysts.

With a nod to Bosnia, Russia might envision a Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine established as a separate entity from the pro-European, Ukrainian-speaking West — with the capital, Kiev, floating in the middle. Like the Republika Srpska in relation to Belgrade, Eastern Ukraine could forge closer economic, political, and linguistic ties to Mother Russia.

A forcibly federalized Ukraine would effectively be prevented from forming a coherent foreign policy that could veer too strongly in any one direction, which has been Bosnia’s experience. The revolutionary, pro-European sentiments of the country’s Western half would be thwarted by the “geopolitical ambiguity” of the state as a whole. It would mean lukewarm ties with Europe and NATO and a satisfied Kremlin.

On its surface, the Bosnian model indeed reflects the “divided Ukraine” narrative that Russia has been promoting since its ally, Yanukovich, was deposed by mainly Ukrainian-speaking demonstrators last month. Russian officials maintain there are legitimate fears of “ethnic cleansing” of Russian-speakers should the Kremlin pull its forces out of Crimea, despite minimal evidence to that effect. On Friday, after a 22-year-old protester of undetermined ethnicity was stabbed to death in Donetsk, a mainly Russian-speaking city in the east, Russia’s foreign ministry reiterated Russia's right to intervene on behalf of “compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine,” hinting that, after Crimea’s regional parliament declared its intention to secede pending a Russian-backed referendum on Saturday, the largely pro-Russian eastern region could be next.

“There are familiar apparitions in Bosnia when it comes to Ukraine,” said Jasmin Mujanovic, a Balkans researcher at York University. “The strategy being deployed by Russia bears remarkable likeness to what was done by the Milosevic government in Yugoslavia. It’s occupation in the name of ethnic solidarity or protection of peace — you occupy a territory and then engineer a referendum.”

As it stands now, it seems like a long shot that Russia could succeed in imposing such a drastic division on an otherwise functioning state. For one, there is no clear impetus in the form of communal hostilities for splitting Ukraine along ethnic lines, contrary to Russian fear mongering about imminent sectarian violence. And the urgency of a bloody civil war that compelled Bosnian leaders to accept a settlement of questionable durability does not prevail in Ukraine, where little blood has spilled. Russian intervention in Crimea is more readily accepted as a geopolitical gambit then an actual threat of war, and few expect the tense, armed standoff in Crimea to erupt as Bosnia did.

Nic believes that if Putin seeks to create a new Bosnia in Ukraine, he is sorely misguided. The leaders in Kiev, who deposed a democratically-elected president, are mired in a legitimacy crisis and condemned by the Kremlin. But state-building in Ukraine has been on an upwards trajectory since the Soviet collapse — all the while Bosnia has remained volatile, especially since foreign aid collapsed in 2006.

“This [federalization] might be something Moscow is looking for, but to me, the basic lesson of the past twenty years between Bosnia and Ukraine is the exact opposite,” Nic said. “Ukraine was never a state before, so if they can survive this crisis it’s because the last twenty years have been all about state-building for Ukraine. Whereas in Bosnia since 2006, the story has increasingly been about whether the country can even function.”

Mujanovic agreed that only someone totally ignorant of Bosnian history could accept a Dayton-style compromise. “You’re going to end up twenty years down the road with a politically immobilized opposition and a corrupt political elite that mascarades behind ethnic nationalism,” said Mujanovic. “Ukraine could only get worse under the Bosnian model.”

But as the events of the past couple weeks have shown, Putin has little regard for international consensus. He also has demonstrated a very different understanding of how state sovereignty is earned — or at least when it should be respected. “According to the political doctrine of the Kremlin… sovereignty is a capacity and not simply a legal right,” said Krastev. “In order to be sovereign a state must be economically independent, militarily strong and culturally assertive.” However much progress it has made, in Putin’s view, Ukraine — teetering on the brink of economic collapse and divided, at least electorally, between the Ukrainian-speaking West and Russian-speaking East — fulfills none of the above.

And analysts otherwise struggle to explain why Putin continues to flex Russia’s military muscle along Ukraine’s eastern border in provocative fashion. On Friday, thousands of Russian troops commenced military exercises just across the border that will continue through the end of the month, the Defense Ministry said.

Plus, even though the West would be resistant to any restructuring of the Ukrainian state, Russia has shown it is more deeply invested in Ukraine, and much more willing to go the distance than the West, which is unlikely to impose more than sanctions and slaps on the wrist.

“The biggest thing Russia has exposed in Crimea is the lack of political will on the part of the international community to act on Ukraine’s behalf,” noted Mujanovic. “It’s just like in Yugoslavia.”

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