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One in 300 Million: Serbia After Putin

Ekaterina Entina

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Authors: Ekaterina Entina, Dejan Novakovic, Georgy Engelhardt

President Putin’s visit to Belgrade on January 17, 2019 was a significant domestic political event for Serbia, and an “empty” one for Russia in terms of its prospects in the country, given the events of 2018 and the content of the meeting itself.

A Simplified Approach to Assessing the Results of Putin’s Visit

The arrival of the President of the Russian Federation did allow Aleksandar Vučić to demonstrate that he enjoys the support both of Washington (which in many ways is doubtful) and Moscow, a city beloved by a large part of the Serbian population. In terms of domestic politics, this position guarantees that the ruling party will score a convincing victory in the snap parliamentary elections, which could be held as early as this spring. The slogan being used to promote Putin’s visit was “one in 300 million” (a reference to a popular Serbian saying that translates “The Serbs and the Russians, there are 300 million of us, but without the Russians, barely enough to fill half a bus”), which turned into a direct response to the opposition’s phrase “1 in 5 million” (which came about in December 2018 as a reaction to the careless statements of the Serbian leader about the opposition’s rallies) and could be used as a “banner” during the election campaign in the country.

On the other hand, the scale of the open part of the visit clearly did not match the qualitative component. In terms of the size and emotional intensity, Putin’s visit to Belgrade had all the trimmings of a grand performance. Seven hundred journalists, 5000 security service officers, a good part of the Russian cabinet, a squadron of Serbian MiGs to accompany the President’s plane in Belgrade, 120,000 Serbs on the square in front of the Church of Saint Sava chanting “Putin! Putin!” and even two small but indispensable additions to the main program – the timely revelation of an attempted assassination and the free Tsarsky bread in the Maxi shops.

At the same time, the main results of the visit were the streamlined statements about TurkStream, the 21 agreements that will be worth a total of 660 million euros in the future (five of which are concerned with providing electricity to Serbian cities) and the Russian leader’s assertion that the “the resolution of the Kosovo issue should be handled by Belgrade and Pristina, but within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 1244.”

The following outlines what may at first appear to be the main results of Putin’s visit to Belgrade.

A Tie

Putin’s visit to Belgrade, dare we say, was an historical event. It will take some time before we see its effects – either as a solid result in the Balkans or as the end of Russia in the region. Why is that?

Following the 2000 October Revolution in Yugoslavia, which led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, fierce debates raged in Serbia over why Moscow did nothing to prevent the change of power in Belgrade. They also brought up the fact that Russia “did nothing” in 1995 when Milošević visited Moscow. Just like now, the expectations of ordinary Serbs back then (regardless of what social group they belonged to) were off the charts, and the Serbian leaders wanted to use Moscow to further its own domestic agenda. And, as we all know, there is nothing worse than disappointed expectations.

To be sure, it can be stated that, despite its pomposity, Putin’s visit went off without any global breakthroughs or prodigious gestures. Yet there were many fears about it: that attempts would be made to get Russia to achieve an agreement on the recognition by Belgrade of Kosovo’s independence; that the Serbian side would try to draw Putin into the country’s domestic confrontation; or, more importantly, that the whole deal could undermine pro-Russian sentiments within Serbian society.

The Russian leader managed to avoid the main traps rather skilfully. Putin did say that “Russia is in favour of Belgrade and Pristina achieving a viable and mutually acceptable solution,” words that Aleksandar Vučić had longed to hear, but continued by reiterating Moscow’s position that this should be done “within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 1244.” This is precisely what Vučić’s opponents in Serbia are demanding, including the Kosovo Serbs, who fear that “bold and creative” solutions will actually turn out to be a banal form of capitulation and, instead of appeasement, the benefits of European integration will only lead to further crises and the split of the country.

Putin was equally skilful in his refusals to engage in the domestic political struggle in Serbia. Presenting Vučić with the Order of Alexander Nevsky and praising him for his personal contribution to the development of bilateral relations (which is certainly fair, as Serbia is the only European country that does not display a hint of anti-Russian sentiment at any level), Putin made note of other Serbian greats who had the honour bestowed upon them in the 19th and early 20th centuries – the founder of independent Serbia Miloš Obrenović and the famous Prime Minister Nikola Pašić. However, Putin politely refused to take part in a mass rally organized by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SPP) led by Vučić. The SPP chartered hundreds of buses to bring in activists and employees of government-funded organizations from across the country, attempting to use the meeting with the most popular foreign leader in Serbia to offset the mass protests organized by the opposition. Despite Vučić’s persistence, as well as the fact that Putin’s participation in the rally had been announced a week before his visit to Belgrade, the Russian leader merely thanked the people for their friendly attitude towards Russia. Refusing to support either of the sides in the domestic political confrontation helped prevent any damage being done to the Russophile portion of the opposition. It would seem that, in terms of its positions, Moscow did not lose anything from Putin’s Belgrade visit. But did it win anything? That is the question.

In order to answer this question, it is important to understand the regional context in which the official visit took place.

The Regional Dimension

The Macedonian parliament recently passed a vote on changing the country’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia,” opening the way to NATO and EU membership. The Hellenic Parliament has not yet voted on the issue. It will do so on January 25, 2019.

Two days before Putin’s visit to Serbia, the U.S. administration addressed the request to lift the customs barriers imposed on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to Kosovo Albanians. The pressure on the Kosovan authorities to take part in the hearings on the atrocities of the 1990s is thus increasing. Such actions, as well as the developments of the past six months, demonstrate that Washington sees itself as the main arbiter and future guardian of the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. Donald Trump was candid about this in his December 2018 letters to President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vučić.

At the same time, the Kosovan and Albanian authorities bilaterally abolished the border regime between the two countries and implemented joint control over crossings, meaning that the two countries have de facto entered the final stages of the “Greater Albania” project. It would seem that such steps would logically put the issue over other “great” countries (for example, Serbia and Croatia) on the agenda too. But we should not count on this right now, as, unlike the Albanians, Belgrade and Zagreb do not have great power behind them.

The only thing that is new in Serbia–Croatia relations are the reasons for the tensions. Tensions themselves are part and parcel of the relationship between the two countries.

In this context, symbolism surrounded the Russian President’s visit to Belgrade. Aleksandar Vučić presented Putin with a Šarplaninac (also known as a Yugoslavian Shepherd Dog, a Macedonian Shepherd Dog and a Kosovan Shepherd Dog). Does it mean he presented Kosovo to Moscow? Probably not. However, it was almost certainly an invitation to step up efforts and an attempt to shift part of the responsibility for the outcome of the negotiations regarding the region onto Russia.

What is more, in the context of the regional trends mentioned above, Putin’s visit can be interpreted not only and not so much as Russia demonstrating its support for Vučić and Serbia, but rather as a meeting with all the region’s Serbian leaders (the leader of the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina Milorad Dodik, the leaders of the Montenegrin opposition Andrija Mandić and Goran Danilović, and the leader of the Serbs in Macedonia Ivan Stoilković). For the first time ever, Putin, albeit it in passing, touched upon the issue of the fragmentation of the Serbian people across a number of states: “There was an attempt to pull the Serbian people about and scatter them across different states, but these decisions are unlikely to be durable if they are not fair.”

What Can Russia Get out of Putin’s Visit?

On the one hand, everything we have mentioned so far can be used to marginalize Moscow’s role in the region.

The ruling party in Serbia will, through the state-controlled media, paint the visit as support for its efforts to cut the “Kosovan knot” and one of the main trump cards for possible parliamentary elections in the future. In this sense, it will tear out a part of the pro-Russian opposition’s program, which is actively participating in the “Union for Serbia” movement, and also deprive it of its main argument that “the government pursues the treacherous policy of recognizing Kosovo and acceding to both the European Union and NATO.” In reality, while Aleksandar Vučić consistently rejects the prospect of Serbia joining NATO, it is clear that the pressure on Belgrade continues to grow. Before Putin’s arrival, the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Serbia reported that negotiations on the second phase of the Individual Partnership Action Plans (IPAP) with NATO had been successful.

Both a final solution to problem of Macedonia’s name and NATO pressure on Bosnia and Herzegovina indirectly point to the Alliance strengthening its positions in the region. The only recourse available to Belgrad would be either joining NATO or secession of Republika Srpska and work for the creation of the so-called “Great Serbia” as the Albanians do.

The pompousness with which the President of the Russian Federation was received will, from a moral point of view, allow European bureaucracy and the western media to double down on its campaign to stigmatize Russia in the region and accelerate the integration of the Balkans into NATO. At the same time, the economic results of the visit, which have been described by the well-known saying “the mountain gave birth to a mouse,” open the way to marginalizing Russia’s role in the economic structure of the region and the pedalling of this fact on the part of the European Union. We must admit that Aleksandar Vučić covered all the bases here: in the run-up to the visit, he assured all the European ambassadors that Putin’s arrival in Belgrade was in no way connected to Serbia’s main desire – to become a member of the EU. The fact that Russia and Serbia have not yet managed to complete technical negotiations on the creation of a free trade area between the latter and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which were launched back in 2015, is further evidence of this.

At the same time, the absence of economic breakthroughs indicates that the visit was needed primarily by Belgrade, which had fought so hard for it to take place. The contractual agreements that were reached do, however, demonstrate that Russian business has an interest in the Serbian market. Also, while “digitalization” is seen by many in both countries as a “modern toy of the authorities,” the agreements give IT companies certain opportunities: Russian companies will gain access to the Serbian market and Serbian developers will be involved in Russian projects.

Most importantly, the visit clearly demonstrated to the West that, politically speaking, Russia has no intention of leaving the Balkans, that it understands the intricacies of the domestic political situation and uses them elegantly. Through Serbia (and not only Serbia, like in Slovenia), Russia has influence and weight in all the countries in that region. And the main thing (in terms of it going against the Western concept of economic dominance) is that Russia’s lack of economic influence in the region continues to be compensated quite easily by its historical power and the psychological and emotional communality shared by the Russian and Serbian peoples. It is possible that such a timely visit from the Russian patriarch to the region could bridge the financial void in the Russia–Serbia story.

However, in the short term, all of this default potential may sink into oblivion if Russia does not find a way to become actively involved in the resolution of the Kosovo issue, and in the ethnic issues in the region as a whole. It would be wise for Moscow to include a number of questions on the agenda:

  • Why do the European Union and NATO tolerate this kind of Balkans (stagnating politically and economically, and thus combustible and living exclusively in the past)?
  • Why does the inclusion of the United States and the United Kingdom in the negotiations on Kosovo does not mean inclusion of Russia?
  • Why do both the United States and the European Union turn a blind eye to the growing tension in the region (the emerging split between the Orthodox Church and the radicalization of the Islamic environment)?

Moscow should then propose searching for answers to these questions within the framework of a new international conference on the Balkans.

*Dejan Novakovic President of the Adriatic Council (Belgrade, Serbia), Georgy Engelhardt Institute of Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

First published in our partner RIAC

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Europe

Will the political face of France change?

Mohammad Ghaderi

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Political and social equations are wrapped up in France! Protests against President Emmanuel Macron continue. Most analysts from European affairs, however, believe that Macron will not have a chance to survive in the presidential race in the next presidential election.

On the other hand, many analysts believe the likelihood of a nationalist presence at the Elysees Palace is high! Le Pen is now trying to remove Macron from power through holding an early election; “It is necessary to implement proportional representation and dissolve the National Assembly in order to hold new proportional elections.”

Simultaneously, she attempts to attract the attention of French citizens to herself as France’s next president. “We believe that the way out of the crisis is essentially political. This decision excludes any use of violence that only adds chaos to adversity,” Le Pen said in a letter published on the party’s website.

Le Pen also emphasized that the political solution to the recent crisis depended on the French officials while uttering that French President Emmanuel Macron “is deprived of sympathy for the people, constrained by arrogance and indifference of the elites.”

As the French National Front can make its way to power, the EU and Euro area equilibrium will change: a matter that many European and French politicians have warned about.

In 2014, the President of the French National Rally political party, Marin Le Pen was able to shine exceptionally well in the European parliamentary elections and overcome other French political parties. In the 2017 general election, Le Pen was able to reach the final round of the presidential competitions for the first time since the establishment of the French National Rally. However, at that time, Le Pen couldn’t act against the broad opposition of the Socialist and Conservative parties. But the equation seems to have changed now!

The French president is not in good shape now! Polls conducted in France suggested a decline in the popularity of Emmanuel Macron as the country’s president. This is while only 21 months have passed since Macron’s presence at Elysee Palace. Under such circumstances, Le Pen and her companions will naturally try to change the French citizen’s mind to the benefit of the French National Rally. This is a very good time indeed, as many of the French citizens no longer trust Macron and his promises for making economic, social reforms in France.

The main question is whether the French National Front will succeed in achieving its goals? It is not clear, however, that Le Pen’s calculations would all come true. The French National Rally President opened a special account on Macron’s former supporters to change their minds, and as a result, their votes to her benefit! This is while some of these votes may turn into silent votes or white votes.

Also, it’s quite possible that France political atmosphere in 2017, would once again repeat in 2022, or during the country’s possible early elections. In this case, to right-wing extremists of French National Rally are going to lose the elections again. Therefore, Le Pen is really cautious about her positions right now, though she believes that Macron’s incapability provided the ground for her political and social success in Paris.

First published in our partner MNA

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Europe has changed its mask

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Face” of peaceful and friendly Europe has changed. Europe even does not try any more to wear a mask of past tolerance. Tensions are constantly increasing. Unrest like wildfire is sweeping across Europe. Though riots caused by different events and decisions, political convulsions make Europeans feel uncomfortable. People are tired of being unheard by the authorities.

Misunderstanding between ordinary people and authorities is more clearly visible, especially in the so-called “old Europe”. Once prosperous countries, France and Italy, actively resist the new world order. Social instability, deterioration of living standards on the background of militarization has led to unprecedented unrest. All attempts to reduce tensions have not brought about results.

Democracy has plaid a dirty trick with all of us. Freedom allows people to go on the streets and introduce their position. On the other hand, delegated powers give the authorities the possibility to “calm” the riots, to suspend the activities, to ban meetings, even using police.

French political movement for economic justice, the so-called “yellow vests”, went beyond the country and caused diplomatic crisis between France and Italy.

German workers also expressed solidarity with “yellow vest” protests in France. Workers in Germany share the same grievances and recognize they also confront policies that favour the rich.

Another irritating thing is militarization of the region, NATO expansion. Many Europeans link the fact of increasing national defence expenditures with deterioration of life. That is why anti-NATO and anti-war campaigns on the Internet gain momentum. Among them are: no-to-nato.network, notonato.org, no2nato2019.org, popularresistance.org/no-to-nato-spring-actions-in-washington-dc. The more so, “Stop Air Base Ramstein” campaign in Germany started October 5th, 2008, gains more popularity and organizes protests in Germany and abroad. It has its representatives in the US, Austria, Australia, Poland, Ireland, France, Japan and the UK. The international network No to War – No to NATO calls for broad actions against NATO in Washington DC and worldwide.

The next occasion for such organizations to become more active is the signing an agreement with Macedonia on February, 6 allowing the country to become the military alliance’s 30th member. This particular step could become the catalyzer for more violent protests and political disobedience. It brings chaos to Europe, raises tensions and leads to the loss of trust in Peace and Democracy.

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Unrest in Bosnia

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For Bosnia and Herzegovina many analysts will say that is artificial creation. That is why there is a saying for Bosnia: ”Where logic ends, Bosnia begins”. Anyway, the latest Bosniak initiative, has surprised many, because it strikes at the very basis of existence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Recently, the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), the main Bosniak party in the country, announced that will initiate a legal procedure before the Constitututional Court to challenge the name of Bosnia`s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.

”The previous practice of the Republika Srpska institutions showed that the entyty`s name was intensively and efficiently used to discriminate against the other two constituent peoples – Bosniaks and Croats, “ the SDA said. “Linking the name to only one people living in the multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina is contrary to the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.” The strongest Bosniak national party, further said that the Constitutional Court made an earlier decision on the constituency of the people which stipulated that the entities must ensure full equality of all constituent peoples in their legal systems.

Reacting to calls for the Constitutional Court to review the legality of the name of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, the leader of ruling Republika Srpska party Alliance of Independent Social Democrats and current Chairman of Bosnia’s Tripartite Presidency, Milorad Dodik, strongly condemned the Party for Democratic Action initiative at a press conference the same day and called upon the SDS (second strongest Serb party) to support a decision on the “independence of the Republika Srpska” if the initiative is submitted to the Constitutional Court.

“Our authentic and original constitutional rights is for us to decide on our status. We will do that,” he said, dismissing earlier statements by the High Representative Valentin Inzko, named by the international community to oversee the civilian implementation of the Dayton Agreement, who said that Republika Srpska can not secede. ”He was put here to conduct repercussions against Republika Srpska. But this is a moment where there will be no calculations,” Dodik said. ”If you wanted to throw us, Republika Srpska, out of Bosnia and Herzegovina, you are doing best job possible. Finish it. I have nothing against it,” Dodik said, referring to the Party for Democratic Action.

This attack on Republika Srpska showed that Serbian politicians are united in its defense. The move drew condemnation from both the ruling Republika Srpska Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), and Bosnian Serb opposition parties in the entity, such as the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) and the Party of Democratic Progress (PDP).

In one of the first reactions to the Bosniak Party for Democratic Action announcement, the Republika Srpska National Assembly Speaker Nedeljko Cubrilovic said this was a nothing but a provocation and that it represents an anti-Constitutional act.

”The SDA’s claims are disgusting and laughable at the same time because they are the ones who refuse to implement the Constitutional Court’s decision issued 12 years ago, stipulating that Serbs must be equally represented in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Cubrilovic said. ”Initiating a Constitutional Court discussion on the name of the Republika Srpska would mark the end of the project called Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Cubrilovic noted.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR), top international institution overseesing the peace implementation in the country stated that the initiative to dispute the name of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity before the Constitutional Court amid the post-election government formation is “irresponsible and counterproductive.” Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two entities, the OHR said, and the Peace Implementation Council continuosly expresses its commitment to basic structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an integral, sovereign state that consists of the two entities.

The international community’s High Representative was installed to oversee the civilian part of the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement, the peace threaty that ended the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Its Peace Implementation Council (PIC) Steering Board, which is composed of foreign ambassadors in Bosnia, meets twice a year to assess the progress in the process.

Background

The statement of Bakir Izetbegovic, leader of the strongest Bosniak party SDA, who addressed the public saying that he is ready to consider abandoning the initiative to change the name of Republika Srpska, if in the next six months “the SNSD change its behavior”, and accept the further path of Bosnia and Herzegovina towards NATO, clearly shows who is standing behind this initiative. Even “Croatian” member of Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency Željko Komšić – several days before Bakir Izetbegovic- conditioned the appointment of a mandate for the Council of Ministers (which currently belongs to the Serbs) by membership in the NATO. It should be added that this initiative of the Bosniaks comes shortly after the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Serbia, where he met, among other things, with the leadership of Republika Srpska.

An interesting analysis of the events in Bosnia was published on January 13 in National Interest, American bimonthly international affairs magazine, by Sean Maguire and Ryan Scherba, with title: “The Bosnia Boondoggle: This is Why Sarajevo Can’t Join NATO”. In the analysis, among other things, is written: “If the United States is serious about backing NATO membership for Bosnia and Herzegovina, then it has to get serious about the failures of the Dayton Peace Accords and drop its support for them as Bosnia’s governance system. They may have ended Bosnia’s civil war in 1995, but they have become synonymous with stagnation, frustration, despair, poor governance and weak institutions. This not only hinders the joint U.S.-Bosnian aspirations to join NATO, but has stagnated Bosnia overall, enshrining ethnic divisions (and tensions) legally between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs that have left Bosnia divided and ripe for geopolitical goals of Russia. The recent elections in October that delivered a hardline Serb-nationalist who is stridently anti-West and NATO to the Bosnian presidency are evidence of this, while serving as a wake-up call to Washington that it is time to re-engage in Bosnia.” In addition to the National Interest, from Turkey also arrived messages regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina future. During a meeting with Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged for the revision of the Dayton Agreement. Turkish President and Croatian President apparently agreed that this document, prepared in haste for only three weeks to stop the war, did not create the conditions for finding a stable solution for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the international community representatives who oversee the implementation of the agreement that ended Bosnia’s war, said they recognize the concerns regarding discrimination of constituent peoples and citizens across the country as legitimate, but that the name “Republika Srpska” is enshrined in the Constitution. The PIC recalled that the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina recognizes that the country consists of two entites, the Bosniak-Croat shared Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska.

Challenging the name of the Republika Srpska entity before the Constitutional Court would be counterproductive and irresponsible, the Peace Implementation Council Steering Board stated while it also condemned recent rhetoric and actions that question the territorial integrity of Bosnia.

Russia refused to join the statement that foreign diplomats in Bosnia issued in response to the recent initiative to challenge the name of Republia Srpska before Bosnia’s Constitutional Court, the Russian Ambasador confirmed to journalists.

”Russia did not give consent for the PIC’s (Peace Implementation Council) joint statement because it is too general. It is everyone’s yet no one’s fault,” Petr Ivantsov told media after the meeting of ambassadors. The conclusions his colleagues passed has a broad meaning that speaks of mistakes of all political actors in Bosnia, said Russia’s diplomat, adding that the statement does not focus on current problems. According to Mr. Ivantsov, the SDA’s “threat” to dispute the Republika Srpska’s name at the Constitutional Court is “a serious mistake” and is not in line with the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement.

Conclusion

The Bosniaks would never undertake such a radical move if they did not have the support in the first place of the West, and also Turkey. After undemocratic accession of Montenegro into NATO, and soon Macedonia, NATO directs its attention to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The main opponent of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entry into NATO is Republika Srpska, whose Assembly passed a resolution on military neutrality.

The West makes it clear that it will not give up until all Balkan states become NATO members. The most important land and riparian transportation corridors between Western Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, and between the Baltic and Aegean Seas, run through Serbia. Because of that, the main goal of the West is Serbia’s entry into NATO, which would also leave Russia without a strategic ally in the Balkans. The main obstacle to this is the “second Serbian state in the Balkans”, that is Republika Srpska. This is precisely why the Bosniaks are encouraged to strike on the basis of Dayton.

The structure of Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina plays a major role in the political life of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it consists of three foreign judges, two Bosniaks, two Serbs and two Croats, which means in practice and it has been established so far – that three foreign and two Bosniak judges have majority, and they use it. So arbitrarily impose their decisions on all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

If the initiative to abolish the name of Republika Srpska go to Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbs must show their determination, which is now announced by the most powerful Serb politician Milorad Dodik. A decision must be made to declare the independence of the Republika Srpska. Such a decision carries a risk of conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, Republika Srpska has no other choice.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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