Bosnia Must Counter Russia’s Cultivation of Far-Right Extremists

Bosnia has yet to even start resisting Russia’s patronage of far-right, ethno-nationalist groups in the country – that are deepening its already dangerous polarization.

Russia engages a range of actors and tools across the Western Balkans, ranging from official diplomats to friendly oligarchs, and from informal radical groups to leading media outlets.

This effort is aided by common languages among several former Yugoslav states, which makes it easier to generate regional support for far-right groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Such groups have increased their visibility in the Balkans by demonstrating loyalty to those who advocate the secession of Bosnia’s Serb-majority entity, Republika Srpska.

BIRN recently published a story about a uniformed pro-Russian group, Sveti Georgije Loncari [“St George of Loncari”], whose members glorify convicted war criminals while posing in Bosnia as a humanitarian organization.

This group is linked to a radical right counterpart in Serbia, Srbska Cast, [“Serbian honour”] which also operates under the guise of humanitarian aid. Both organizations, and other similar groups, enjoy Russian support.

In January 2021 Srbska Cast, which is headquartered in the southern Serbian city of Nis but has a branch in the Republika Srpska, participated in the Republika Srpska Day parade. The parade marks the date in 1992 when Bosnian Serb leaders declared their own state and sparked a genocidal war whose commemoration was declared unconstitutional in 2015 by the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Russian support for groups like Srbska Cast is multi-faceted and ranges from efforts to reinforce far-right narratives online to military training. According to researchers, the Russian Humanitarian Centre in Nis is the site of some of this training, which also takes place at so-called “youth patriotic camps” in Russia and Serbia, which are explicitly designed to radicalize the young attenders.

In addition to providing armed and kinetic training, these camps ideologically indoctrinate the participants through stories that celebrate ethno-nationalism, illiberalism and anti-Western perspectives, and glorify convicted war criminals and intolerance towards minority groups.

Besides this, Russia promotes the ideological themes of far-right groups on popular media platforms such as Sputnik and Russia Beyond Serbia. By taking advantage of the deep polarization that exists in the Western Balkans, these media outlets feed internal tensions in order to produce opposition to the West and position Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, as an ideal model.

News items in Russian-financed local media portray Putin as a strong and respected leader who opposes “Western globalists and elites” and their values, which are deemed contrary to traditional values and morality.

Through the export of Russian-based organisations and their branches groups in Bosnia and the region, and relying on oligarchs close to the Kremlin, Russia has cultivated far-right groups in Bosnia for years.

The notorious Russian far-right Night Wolves and Cossacks motorcycle clubs were imported to Republika Srpska by the so-called “Orthodox tycoon” Konstantin Malofeev, who manages the Tsargrad media group and investment fund Marshal Capital Partners, and by Night Wolves leader Alexander Zaldostanov.

A vehement racist and homophobe, that did not stop him from being given a medal by the then president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, now member of Bosnia state’s presidency from Republika Srpska.

These links between top officials in Republika Srpska and far-right groups and figures from Russia have led to a form of Russification of Serbian ethno-nationalist narratives in the Western Balkans. Increasingly, these narratives and the folklore of the regional far-right mythologize Serb-Russian ties and frame Russia as the ultimate protector of Serbs.

A recurring theme in this rhetoric is Russia’s role in hindering the adoption of a UN Security Council Resolution on the 1995 Srebrenica genocide carried out by Bosnian Serb forces, as well as Russia’s role in “safeguarding” Kosovo for Serbs by insisting on its status is an internal Serbian issue.

By cultivating links between far-right groups and ruling ethno-nationalists in Bosnia, Russia encourages the country’s dangerous internal polarization. And while the number of groups that receive official or unofficial support from Russia appears relatively limited for now, this support could clearly grow.

This is worrisome, given Russia’s skilled deployment of outright disinformation and emotionally charged news stories that touch on the legacy of 1992-5 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

By promoting efforts to dis-integrate the country, such as an independence referendum in Republika Sprska, Russia is also aggravating tensions that might well encourage far-right groups to commit violence.

However, no strategy to counter the far-right in Bosnia and Herzegovina or end or slow Russian support for far-right groups has been articulated as yet.

Lack of agreement among Bosnian authorities on the appropriate legislative framework to address these issues is one hindrance, as is the fact is that some Republika Srpska officials are willingly entangled with far-right organisations and oligarchs in Russia. This is an even greater obstacle to countering these groups and their external backers.

Successfully untangling this Gordian knot requires a comprehensive approach capable of combating the many ways in which Russia has both subtly and not so subtly rewritten the ethno-nationalist narrative of Serbs across the Western Balkans and situated itself as the state patron of the region’s growing far-right.

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