Destabilising Bosnia-Herzegovina: Russian Hybrid Warfare and Greater Serbian Separatism  

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Destabilising Bosnia-Herzegovina: Russian Hybrid Warfare and Greater Serbian Separatism

DATE: 6.00 pm – 7.00 pm, 25 April 2022

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Dr Othon Anastasakis, Sonja Biserko and Daniel Sunter



Bob Seely MP:

Hi, everyone, and welcome to this Henry Jackson Society seminar. My name is Bob Seely. I’m a Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight. And we have three, very fascinating guests with us, who are going to introduce themselves in just a minute. They are- and hope I get pronunciations correctly; I’ll start with the most difficult one. So, we’ve got Othon Anastasakis, who is in Athens at the moment, we have Sonya Biserko in Belgrade. And we have Daniel Sunter, also in Belgrade as well. And I’m just going ask them to introduce themselves in just a second. Jamila, can I just check, we’ve got no more sort of background sound? And you’re on mute yourself as well. That’d be great if you are, thank you very much indeed.

So, a little bit about myself, I’m on the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament. And for many years, I’ve been very interested in foreign affairs. When I was rather younger than I am now, I spent about four years living in the former Soviet Union from 1990 to 1994. Then when I was there, I went, not that often, but on two or three occasions, to cover the Yugoslav civil wars, and the breakup of Yugoslavia at the same time when I was a foreign correspondent for The Times, which is why I was in the Soviet Union. So, I remember how awful those wars were, actually, and how miserable it was being in Sarajevo, but in also other parts of Croatia, of Serbia, of Kosovo, of Bosnia & Herzegovina at that time, and it was a pretty disturbing and horrible time for that country, and for those people inhabiting it.

Right. Can I ask now what I want to ask our guests? I’m going to ask them to talk for about three, well, between sort of roughly five minutes each, about what they think are the priority issues that they want to talk about in the next hour. And then after about 15 minutes or so, 15-20 minutes, I’m going to open it up for a discussion, which will remain as conversational as possible. So, if you have a question, can you please use, not the raise hands, but the Q&A, to ask whatever question you’d like to. Either direct it at one particular person or direct it at us generally. And we can then have a quick conversation about it. So, Sonya, can you just say hello to the audience? And also give us just a little bit about yourself and a few minutes on what you think are the key points that you should be raising and we talking about in this briefing? And we can’t hear you. Can we hear you?

Sonja Biserko, 2:38

Can you hear me? Yeah, I’m Sonya Biserko from the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. I mostly operate in the Human Rights field and also deal with the legacies of Yugoslavia. Our committee has published several books on Yugoslavia, especially recently, we have published one relating to the decade before the collapse of Yugoslavia. And in everything else, really, my organisation, myself personally, are very strong in this field to make people understand why Serbia ended in this situation it is. So, I would like to focus, in the few minutes that I have on the role of Russia in the Balkans, who have infiltrated the region in 2013, or 2014. And in a strategic vacuum, because the Western Community has left, the region has become disengaged already as of 2006-2008. And it was rather quite easy for Russia to occupy this space. And since then, they have made immense progress, especially in Serbia, Republika Srpska, Montenegro, but also very present in Macedonia. Of course, they waged different kinds of activities, but they failed both in Montenegro and Macedonia. They were instrumental in this push which failed. But in Serbia and Republika Srpska, it is still very strong. And, as you know, Serbia is the only country in Europe, which is organising protests in favour of Russia in this Ukraine war.

More than 200 intellectuals have signed a petition against introducing sanctions to Russia, and last week, a group of them had a very important panel, I would say, where they consensually agreed or suggested strategic patience for Serbia, waiting for the outcome, hiding under the rudder, silent resistance and various forms of obstruction. Just waiting for Russia to occupy Odessa and Danube Delta, which would mean a deal done, in most of their views, but it will be a moment for the Serbian geopolitical term. Meaning that it will be an opportunity to aspire to the regions that Serbia have has aspired to all these years. Neither Russia or Serbia have really accepted the new reality, the collapse the Soviet Union and the collapse Yugoslavia. So, we have two very similar, I would say, problems, like Russian world and Serbian world, it’s very similar, by the way. They organise it through defending discriminated Serbs or Russians in the neighbouring state. And this is one of the major arguments for the invasion of Ukraine, but also Serbian presence in Bosnia, in Montenegro and in Kosovo. Unfortunately, only till recently, it was almost possible for Serbia to achieve partition of Kosovo, due to the, how should I say, Trump administration and this, I would say, rather disengaged European Union role in in the region. So, they have almost achieved a partition deal with Kosovo, President Thaci and Rama. which would immediately mean partition of Bosnia because Kosovo is there only as an argument for compensating in Bosnia that is a public subsidy. So, I mean, this is argumentation which is sort of hidden because most of the Serbian nationalists claim that Kosovo is a Serbian land. And of course, Russia uses Resolution Bill 44 and its membership in the Security Council to obstruct any move towards Kosovo’s acceptance to the UN membership.

So, this is kind of, how should I say, vicious circle which now has come to an end? I hope so. And it seems likely, but this very much depends on how Western community especially US, I would say, also UK, will be resolute to finalise this, so called, unfinished business in the region. And Serbia is in a very specific position, because our president says said to the Financial Times, in a Financial Times interview, that Serbia will never take the side because we think that it is not instrumental and doesn’t achieve anything. But the President is under harsh pressure, both from Russia and Western Community. Russia is now getting annoyed with all this hesitant behaviour of President Vučić. They hoped that he will sort of stand by the friendship, that he is very often pointing out the friendship in Russia. They expect that there will be ministers, Protestant ministers in the new government, the same as the Western Community, whereas Western Community is now pushing very harsh, telling him take it or leave it otherwise, you will be isolated the same in the same way as Russia. So, he still holds that there is a manoeuvring space, maybe for a short while, but not too long. So, this is, I would say, a space that we live in now, hoping for something for a miracle to happen. Unfortunately, the public is very much in favour of Russia. It’s more, as I said, emotional and quite mobilising. Whereas children and most of the people leave for the West for jobs and studying and so on. But this atmosphere has been created by President Vučić since 2012. It has always been in a way pro-Russian, but not in this way. We have the mainstream media, tabloids, intellectuals, Serbian Orthodox Church, security services army, they’re all in favour of Russia. So, this is one of his major problems in case he decides in favour of West.

Bob Seely MP, 8:56

I’m always telling people to unmute and that I sometimes forget myself. Just before I go on to Daniel and Athan, just very quickly, in 30 seconds, do you think the Russians have the power to mobilise either the Bosnian Serbs or Serbia into either paramilitary or military violence?

Sonja Biserko, 9:14

Well, I think Russia is deeply involved in many sectors of the Serbian economy. Energy and infrastructure, agriculture. And, paramilitaries, which come here also to the Republika Srpska. So, I mean, he can easily open second front. I don’t think Russia will fight in the Balkans, but it can easily undermine the fragile peace in the region because it’s already an unconsolidated region because of Serbia is afoot in all neighbouring states. So especially in Bosnia, I would also say point out Montenegro, which is, I would say, now below the radar. And it’s still in by danger to be totally destabilised by Russia and Belgrade influence.

Bob Seely MP, 10:07

Thank you very much. Othon, I’m going to come to you next. Can you just briefly introduce yourself? And what do you think, when talking about Russian hybrid warfare and greater Serbian separatism, what do you think are the key points that you want to be raising?

Dr Othon Anastasakis, 10:21

Thank you, Bob. I’m directing the Centre of Southeast Europe at St. Anthony’s College in Oxford. I teach European Politics in Oxford and I’m involved in a couple of projects to do with migration, migration diplomacy with Turkey and the European Union, but also with diaspora and doing a lot with geopolitics as well. Now, the main points I’d like to raise here is how Russia is conducting this hybrid warfare. There are what I call the three C’s. There is cooperation on the one hand. There is coercion on the other. And there is communication as a third pillar. Now, what we are seeing, especially now with the invasion in Ukraine, is these two pillars, coercion and communication, being particularly prominent, in the sense that there are threats coming from embassies to the countries that support the West. Or there are various forms of interferences, there is energy dependency, there is the thing that actually Russia is moving a lot to the countries that are siding with the West. But there’s also communication. And that is particularly significant in this because there are all those alternative discourses and narratives that are quite convincing to many large parts of the population, not just in Serbia and in Republika Srpska, but also in the whole of the region, even in Greece, where I am right now, which is about, first of all, this anti-Western kind of discourse, but at the same time this Whataboutism? In other words, what about NATO having invaded the countries? What about the United States? Why not Russia? Even using the to the example of course refers to legitimise, you know, invasion in countries, having at the same time not recognised Kosovo as an independent state. Now, that’s from the Russian perspective.

What I think is interesting to discuss, as well, is what is the Western response. And so far, the Western response has been, again, characterised by three main features. The first one is about Western complacency. In other words, the European Union in particular, believes that these countries in the Western Balkans have the EU as the only game in town, which may not be particularly the reality, you know, right now. The second one is the Western appeasement. There’s been a lot of criticism of the West, for working with Vučić and Dodik and leaders actually, for the sake of stability and wishing to cut corners in terms of democratic backsliding. And the third one is the enlargement reluctance. We’ve seen that in the start of, actually the non-start of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, and at the same time, having adopted a new methodology, but not having tested it at all. So, the main dilemma for the West, and given the circumstances that we’re seeing right now, and let me point here, like also the impact of the recent elections, all these April elections that happened in Hungary, Serbia and France. We’ve got a non-good outcome of an election in Hungary because Orbán, only illiberal itself. And he also has a big influence in the Western Balkans. There is the outcome of Vučić that we were all expecting. And then there’s the outcome in France, which is actually the hopeful sign that, you know, the West is going to continue to be unified and strengthened. Imagine if Marine LePen was in power right now. So, the main dilemmas for coming from the EU is actually what to do with those three areas: Complacency, appeasement, and reluctance. And maybe this invasion in Ukraine is actually a critical moment where the EU will have to start really thinking about its appeasement, visa vie Dodik and visa vie Vučić, whether it’s going to go through a new enlargement strategy, and maybe enhanced enlargement.

We also see that the three associated countries in the eastern neighbourhood of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, have also applied in the European Union. That might be a big moment and a change. But at the same time, whatever happens with enlargement, it has passed through the Western Balkans. Even if that will be successful it will have first to be successful in the Western Balkans. And my final point is the dilemma of the leaders in the regions and in particular, the Western Balkans to Serbia and Republika Srpska. It’s not exactly straightforward that Vučić, for instance, will want to go with Russia. He wants to play this kind of multi-vector foreign policy. He wants to play with the different sides. As Sonia said already, this is not a long-term strategy. And then similarly with Dodik, because he’s got the closest links there, and Russia feels that this is a very, very firm ally there. But the question is, do these two leaders actually want an outright conflict? Do they want the security of the ritual of the Western Balkans actually, to fall into pieces? That’s not in their interest as well. So, they’ve got their own dilemmas, too, I suppose that we, you know, we may discuss a bit further.

Bob Seely MP, 15:48

Okay. And thank you very much indeed. Right. Daniel, you’re also from Belgrade? Can you just very briefly introduce yourself to our audience? I’m writing down questions I want to throw at you afterwards. But I’m going to hold off until you’ve introduced yourself and articulated the arguments that you want to put forward today. So over to you, Daniel. Thank you.

Daniel Sunter, 16:09

So, my name is Daniel Sunter. I’m founder of the Balkan Security Network.

Bob Seely MP, 16:15

Can you try to talk a little bit more closely to your microphone because you sound a tiny bit muffled. Like you’re talking to a blanket, but I’m sure it’s just temporary.

Daniel Sunter, 16:24

Is it better now?

Bob Seely MP, 16:25

It’s a little bit better. Yeah.

Daniel Sunter, 16:27

Okay, great. So, I’m head of the Balkan Security Network which connects editors, analysts and journalists in the region and promotes tech-based narratives. In 2005, I also established the Euro Atlantic Initiative. It’s an organisation based in Serbia and utilises the importance of communication and companies’ information projects, for last 15 years. So today, I like to talk about the effects of the Russian disinformation in Bosnia, but also in the in the Western Balkans, the ways of mitigation and importance of distinguishing between a foreign malign influencing for one side and authentic attitudes that should not necessarily be attributed to the influences of foreign actors. So, when it comes to the phenomenon of disinformation, I think it’s very important to understand that it is not related only to Bosnia & Herzegovina, but to the wider but to the wider Western Balkans. And, as my esteemed colleague Tim Judah said before, because of the almost identical language, history, culture, family ties, this whole region in a way it’s called a UV-sphere. So, information flows without any kind of limitation when it comes to borders. The emergence of disinformation in Bosnia but also in Montenegro and Serbia coincides with the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. This is actually the year later, Sputnik’s new service was launched in Serbian language, it still operates by the way, and in February 2015, Russian Beyond was also launched in the local language. So, dozens of portals have appeared, generating or distributing this kind of a pro-Russian narratives. But at the same time, local media, national media, mainstream outlets in all these affected countries began to use foreign disinformation on a large scale, and the question is why? So, I mean, the whole region including Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing serious problems when it comes to the media landscape. So, we are facing with the phenomenon of globalisation, clickbait logic, poor ethical standards, little investigative journalism, and lot of political influences coming both from the local actors and international actors. So, in some media, not all of them, there is a direct influence of the Kremlin on their editorial policies.

So, what kinds of narratives (do) these sources of disinformation generate? The first feature is that they are highly tailored to resonate with local populations, and therefore want to deal with these grievances related to the wars in the 1990s and the aftermath of these conflicts. Therefore, an important segment is the amplification of perceptions with claims about the endangerment of the Serbian people. The West is portrayed as weak and strongly anti-Serbian and up anti-orthodox, and this kind of a message is repetitive. It happens all the time. At the same time, the Russian military might is being glorified. And this is happening since 2014. So, stories about new tanks, new missiles, new shapes, new ships, and alleged fear that Washington power arouses in Pentagon, Brussels, London and so on. So, it means in reality that, you know, regular taxi driver or housewife in Serbia knows a lot about, you know, prominent Russian tanks, prominent Russian missiles, which is not so common, I would say, in Western societies.

So, a recent deep dive analysis of the regional media’s, conducted by an international team, of which I was a member, indicates that the local population in Bosnia equally consumed their own media and media from Serbia and Croatia. Some Serbian-Croatian outlets are even more widely read than the local ones. The latest disinformation study of the European Parliament called Serbia a launchpad for Russian disinformation operations in the Western Balkans. So, the question is why? And it is related to the to the current foreign policy goals of Serbia, in fact not only the current one. It is the result of the foreign policy goals, which were defined after the proclamation of Kosovo independence. So, Serbia is still striving for European Union membership. But that same time, Serbia launched this four-pillar policy of developing relations with the United States with European Union, and but also with China and, and with Russia. And both China and Russia are not recognising Kosovo independence, which is important for Serbia. And as the effect of this four-pillar policy, there is a sort of a competition information space of all these big powers when it comes to the flow of information, including disinformation coming from Kremlin. So, for instance, as an example, when the invasion of Ukraine started, some of these media outlets accused Kyiv of starting the war. And some other events from the conflict are presented exclusively from the pro-Kremlin point of view. Another problem is related to the very low level of media literacy across the region. So Open Society Institute in 2021 conducted an in-depth analysis on media literacy, and Bosnia is at the bottom, alongside North Macedonia and Albania. So, disinformation more resonates, of course, in those societies, which are more vulnerable to these kinds of twisted narratives.

Bob Seely MP, 22:52

Can I wrap it up there for the moment, only because I want to try to get on to some questions? Do you feel you need to make a summing up? Are you happy where you are there? Thank you very much indeed. That was really fascinating and important stuff. Okay. I’ve got some questions coming in. Robert McNeil has asked, what are the implications of Putin losing the war in Ukraine for Republika Srpska? If Robert doesn’t mind, I’m going to slightly change that. Because I’m sure we’ll get on to that. When we’re answering, guys, can we try to stick to a minute or two just to make some key points, and then feel free to come back on each other. But as long as everyone’s getting a chance to talk, because conversation is the best way forward. I’m going to ask, firstly, what impact do we think the Ukrainian invasion and the fact that it’s not very successful thus far, has had on both the Bosnian-Serb leadership and the Serbian leadership? Has it made them more reluctant to come out in support? Has it made them think twice? Or do we think the Russian power over these leadership’s is so influential, that actually it may not have made much of a difference? Sonia, do you want to go first and just give us an overview of what you think the impact of the war has been in a minute or two?

Sonja Biserko, 24:13

Nobody knows what they will do next because it’s enormous frustration, and I think they can do anything so their impact on the region can be same as in many other regions. Moldova and the Balkans are an easy place to sort of incite some kind of chaos. But in the meantime, President Vučić became very concerned with this new situation. He’s quite aware of the pressures and the new situation for Serbia. I’m not sure that his heart is on the side of the West. He’s rational thinking is sort of balancing but I’m not sure whether he will be able to make a breakthrough. Dodik is still playing on Russia. Maybe he’s public speech and provocation that a little bit on lower level, but he’s still sort of saying that High Representative should go home because he has no confirmation on Security Council and so on. So, he’s still the major actor who could be the destabilising factor in the region. Of course, there is some kind of coordination with Belgrade. But they’ll be very careful in what he’s saying. But on the other side, you have his ministers who still, and all these intellectual, 200 and more, who are claiming that, you know, this unification of Serbian lands and so on, which was in progress, I must say in the last 10 years or more, because the European Union never paid attention to that, they really tolerated and this appeasement to Belgrade, apparently, and raise this distrust to Belgrade and also the EU.

So, you have some kind of a loss of interest for the EU, especially in Macedonia, and in other countries in Kosovo. Also, Kosovo is pushing for reciprocity in this relation. But still, they’re always on the radar because Belgrade is always the priority, it is always perceived as a main factor of stabilisation or decentralisation, which it is, but you cannot pursue this way of approaching them, and others in the region by giving them all the advantages and always buying them or, you know, trying to sort of buy them and the attention for the West. Vučić was very skilful in exploiting this all these last years. So, I hope that this manoeuvring space is now much smaller. I mean, I cannot now anticipate what the State Secretary today will say to Vučić or what his ambassador is telling him privately. As far as I know, they’re very tough with him. Publicly, it’s always giving them the space to decide what they’re on and so on. But in reality, it is much tougher. So, President Vučić is really in a dire situation, and we will see how he will, you know, make this situation I would say positive for Serbia, but I’m not sure about it. It’s really farfetched.

Bob Seely MP, 27:14

Thank you very much. Othon, you think that the war, the number of casualties, Russia’s relative failure to achieve a quick victory has sobered up Serbian forces and the forces of potential chaos in where you are, or not? Sorry, in Serbia, in Serbian parts of Bosnia and in Montenegro or not, you think it’s made an awful lot of difference?

Dr Othon Anastasakis, 27:41

I think that is different information going to different people, you know, at this stage, and there is a Western type of information that presents Russia as not being particularly successful with its campaign. But there’s also that communication with which comes from (inaudible) and in that sense, I’m not sure that we are all getting the same information here in order to be able to say that. What I would like to add to Sonia’s point, in terms of Vučić, I think he’s in a difficult position in the sense that it was easy to get the elections by actually presenting himself above the war, against war, and trying to appease himself and the different forces. Now, actually, you know, because of what has happened, and he will have to take some sides. And that’s going to be very, very difficult because he has to cater for so many different clientele’s actually in Serbia that I believe is going to be very difficult for him to have to juggle with these different audiences that he needs.

Bob Seely MP, 28:59

I’m sorry, sorry to interrupt you. These are voting bells. And unfortunately, I’ve got to go and now vote. So, can I leave? And can I leave you in charge and continue the conversation. And you’ve got the Q&A. Can you see the questions that are coming in from folks on the call?

Dr Othon Anastasakis, 29:19

Are you asking me Bob?

Bob Seely MP, 29:21

Yeah. Anyone? Daniel or Sonya can take over, it’s just I need sadly to go and vote. So, I will try to join you again in 10 or 15 minutes. So, Jamila, can you ask the questions of our esteemed panellists? So, they can converse between them? Because sadly, I need I need to go and vote, and I can get back on in about 10 minutes or so once I’ve voted.

Jamila Mammadova, 29:31

Yeah. That’s not a problem at all.

Bob Seely MP, 29:35

Okay, I’m so sorry about this. I will get in such trouble with the whip. And I’m trying to be good at the moment. So, I will see you very shortly. And I will try to come back on as soon as I can. But Othon you carry on and I will come back on the call, but I can make it.

Dr Othon Anastasakis, 30:03

I think I, you know, can’t see all questions here.

Bob Seely MP, 30:08

Jamila from Henry Jackson will point them out, but you carry on finishing your answer. And then Daniel, if you want to come in, then Jamila can ask the next question?

Dr Othon Anastasakis, 30:21

Okay. My final point was, again, following up on what Sonia said before, is that distinction between the rational and the emotional, I think it’s going to be particularly relevant in how those leaders in the region will, you know, will decide their own course, in the sense that not just Vučić or Dodik, but other leaders as well in Croatia, as well, in North Macedonia. They have to listen to their audiences, which are much more emotional visa vie, Russia. So, in that sense, they do have a difficult kind of situation and a balance to juggle. And, in that sense, sometimes we need to understand, and I’m also understanding this while being in Greece here as well, that, you know, we don’t have the consensus of Western Europe, against Russia that we see, you know, in countries in public opinions in the UK, or France, or Germany, or other Western countries. In Southeast Europe, in the Balkans, things are actually much more divided and much more heated in terms of how popular Russia is in these societies.

Jamila Mammadova, 31:39

Excellent. So, is somebody willing to add anything to the speech? Or we can probably move to a Q&A


Daniel Sumpter, 31:50

I’d like to add just two points.

Jamila Mammadova, 31:53

Yes, please, Daniel. Speak a bit louder, because we cannot hear you properly from here. Thank you.

Daniel Sunter, 31:59

Can you hear me better? Yeah. Okay. So, seems to me that at this point Serbia is trying to follow in a way, Israeli foreign policy, although Serbia is not part of the Middle East. So, when it comes to the United Nations, Serbia is supportive, and in favour of all of these resolutions against Russia. But when it comes to the sanctions, Serbia still refrains to do so. And it seems to me that Putin is facing tremendous challenges when it comes to the local perceptions of people in Serbia, and Serbs in general, because the pro-Russian sentiments are very, very strong here. And also, we have local or pro-Russia organisations and some media outlets, which are obviously pretty much affiliated to Kremlin, and they’re very proactive in Serbia, but also in the region since the February of this year. So, it is a big challenge for Vučić, it is a big challenge for his party, but it’s a big challenge for the whole society, as well. So, this is where it’s at certainly right now. But at the same time, I think that this tragic environment of an invasion is giving to us, in a way, an upper hand to be more proactive in the Western Balkans, especially the European Union, especially when it comes to the membership perspectives of Bosnia, of North Macedonia, of Serbia and of Albania. Because this fatigue of European Union enlargement and everything also contributed to pro-Russian sentiments in the region, among the Serbian population. So, I really hope the West and Brussels will use this opportunity to speed up the integration process in the region. Thank you.

Jamila Mammadova, 34:10

Excellent. Is anybody willing to add anything to Daniel’s speech? Or we could move to a Q&A section? Okay, so we’re moving to a Q&A. So, there is a question to all of you. What are the implications of Putin losing the war in Ukraine, to Republika Srpska causing secession? Why don’t we start with Dr Anastasakis? Thank you.

Dr Othon Anastasakis, 34:38

Yeah, that’s a quite a risky question in itself, because we could assume and expect that if the war goes well in Ukraine for Putin, that means then that Putin will feel that he’s got the upper hand to be able to stir things even more in the near abroad. If he’s got success in Ukraine, then he will move onwards to Moldova because that’s actually the next stop, especially if you manage to get a southern bridge and cover the whole of the North of the Black Sea reaching to Moldova. But also, the fact that, you know, there is a proxy kind of area for conflict. So that’s the one outcome. That he feels he’s strong. He’s gained a lot from the from the war, and then he continues onwards. The other is that he doesn’t do well in Ukraine. But then he uses the opportunity to mess things up through the Western Balkans again, since he didn’t have the chance to succeed as much as he wanted with that. So, you know, you can see this being enhanced on both scenarios, I would say.

Jamila Mammadova, 35:58

Very well. Thank you so much, very informative. Sonia, do you have anything to add to Dr Anastasakis’s comments?

Sonja Biserko, 36:06

I agree with what was said previously, because in Serbia, the prevailing analysis, in different circles, is that Russia is winning, and this is an opportunity for Serbia to accomplish its aspirations in the region. And, of course, if it wins, it will be a possibility for Serbia. It will be another affront for the West, first of all, because Western Balkans are an instrument for Russia to check on EU, NATO and US and they really try to show how impotent they are to solve the unfinished business in the region, that has been so for all these years, and now it has an additional component. But on the other side, the West has increased its presence here, they are coming here on daily basis, we don’t know how much really, they will deliver. This is also a question for all of us. But it’s very important that they are able to sort of make some kind of arrangements, both for NATO arrangements, for Bosnia and Kosovo, the only two countries which are not into NATO at the moment. And this will be a pretext for any kind of their reaction if Russia starts to sort of mess up in the region. And Serbia also. And the other factor is also important that Serbia has a very developed relation, military relation, with Russia, but also with NATO. But I’m just pointing out Russia, because lots of arms that come from Russia, Serbia is now the most armed state in the region. And most of the neighbouring states, really highly distrust Serbia. They don’t know what they need it for. Now, they’re also buying arms, from France, from China, and so on, all kinds of different kinds of armament. And this is also something which is raising tensions in the region, and fear. And I must say that Bosnian people, especially in the Federation, they’re all highly concerned at what might happen, either in case Russia is winning or not. So, this is already an atmosphere in the region that is there. So, I would say that NATO, and the West should really act accordingly in order to ease these tensions and raise expectations for the region that EU perspective and NATO perspective are there.

Jamila Mammadova, 38:28

Very good point, very relevant. Thank you, Sonia. Daniel, do you have anything to add to this?

Daniel Sunter, 38:59

Yes, I’d like to add to what Sonya has said about Serbia. So, this is the part of four-pillar policy. Purchasing military equipment to major power surpluses, as sort of a leverage to improve the relations with these countries. So, Turkey is about to sign a bigger and bigger military arrangement with France now, when it comes to refiled nuclear combat aeroplanes. Also, a lot of stuff was procured from Russia, also something was brought from China, etc. When it comes to Republika Srpske, I’m not sure to what extent you can speak realistically about secession, having in mind that Serbia officially supported territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, in the UN, also political stance of Serbia related to Kosovo is highly connected to the idea of respecting international law and territorial surrendering of Serbia. So, and I would say that even time of dark times of Serbia, Serbia even then did not recognise the independence of Republika Srpska and secession of Republika Srpska was nott something which was supported back then. So, I don’t see how this could happen now in the circumstances, and it seems to me that, that nationalistic liberals in Bosnia are more silent because of because of the war in Ukraine. And because nobody’s government is doing it right now. It doesn’t mean that, that decentralisation groups, organisations, cannot try to do something and create some trouble. I don’t see how something bigger can happen on the political level (inaudible).

Bob Seely MP, 40:49

Thank you very much, Jamila. Sorry, I’m back again. But I’m probably going to have to go in about five minutes. So, my apologies. I’m now in a different background, probably rather nicer background, and I’m just outside the House of Commons voting lobby. So, the next time the bells go, I will mute and listen for about five or six minutes. But then I have to run into the voting lobbies. Jamila, where we got to? Have we asked our panellists about the role of Orthodoxy, and the links between the Russian Orthodox Church? The reason I asked that is because clearly there’s been a battle, and a significant one, in Ukraine, between the Russian Orthodox and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Is that something that we should be looking at chatting about and discussing now?

Jamila Mammadova, 41:32

Yeah, that’s a very good point. Why not? Yeah, go ahead.

Bob Seely MP, 41:36

Can I ask, before I need to go again, I will listen in and mute and I’m sorry about the bells. It sounds like I’m coming out as a Hunchback of Notre Dame at the background. But if we could talk about the role of the Orthodox Church for good or ill, and Serbian society, and its links to the Russian Orthodox, I think that’s a valuable part of the conversation. I don’t know who would like to start that.

Sonja Biserko, 42:01

Well, I think this is the most important link between Moscow and Belgrade, traditionally and historically speaking. They have a similar role in societies and the Serbian Orthodox Church had an important role, in the beginning of 19th century in establishing modern state of Serbia, and has since then played a very relevant role, especially in preserving Serbian identity and so on. It’s a less religious institution, more, I would say political and especially in this period since 80s, it has it had an important role in mobilising further motions in Bosnia and Croatia, on the victimhood during the Second World War and so on. But in this new constellation, it is the only legitimate institution across the border in Bosnia and Montenegro and they have extremely prominent political role, especially in Montenegro now, because the election two years ago. They also mobilise the people who are not pro-Serbian or pro-Russian. Generally, this was a really conservative revolution, which was not recognised by the West, I think, because the first principle they pushed was really the changing of the power for 30 years now. So, Montenegro is now in some kind of chaos. They had the government, which is now being removed, and we will have soon, this minority government, which, again, is nothing, you know, because it is composed of the pro-Serbian, pro-Russian parties. And you don’t have really a strong leader in this sort of would-be government and Russian influence is still very strong. And I must say that you have a number of Russians who left Russia during these last two months, and they are mostly here in Serbia. And in Montenegro. They have opened about 300-500 firms here in Belgrade. They moved their firms to Russia here because of the sanctions. And they say it is the biggest exodus since October Revolution. You know, the scientists, artists, journalists, and all those liberal intellectuals,

Bob Seely MP, 44:23

Are these pro-Putin people?

Sonja Biserko, 44:27

Most of them, I think, are pro-Putin, but also many of those who are against Putin. So, the Orthodox Church in Russia now say Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are the Holy State, Holy Russia. The Russian church are not recognising new kinds of Montenegrins or Bosnians, all of these people. They have the same logic, the same methodology in invading the neighbouring states or neighbouring republics in the case of Yugoslavia in 90s. So, this is in a way mobilising emotions because political parties are more or less compromised. They’re criminalised. And this is also important link with Moscow; they’re also corrupt. So, you have this corruption link and money link, which is very strong. When you really analyse it profoundly, it’s not really so much pro-Russian sentiment, it’s more anti-Western sentiment, I would say, anti-western values, because you have, in the meantime, this aggression in the region. I think it’s partially responsibility of the Western Community, because they just tolerated this autocratic leader who use this strategic vacuum, which will then feel by Russia and China, to handle some other businesses, less transparent, more corrupt, and so on. So, you have now this joint force, orthodoxy, you know, sort of these emotions coming from the church, but also this criminal aspect of these relations.

Dr Othon Anastasakis, 46:15

And can I add Sonja to this that is, of course, about this kind of soft power and religion being a unifying element, especially as far as Russians and Serbs are concerned. But it has to be said as well that Orthodoxy is not a unified kind of religion. And spirituality is not the dominant issue. I mean, it’s so politically engaged. And so, taking sides, we’ve seen, you know, similar divisions within the Orthodox churches that we are seeing in politics. And, you know, we’re seeing Constantinople actually not being in agreement with Moscow. So, there are serious divisions as well. And while it is a unifying element between Serbs and the Russians at the same time, it’s really politically motivated, I believe.

Sonja Biserko, 47:06

Yeah, I think so. Yes, it’s really about how they perceive their neighbourhood and their projects in the Balkans and in the post-Soviet area. So, it’s similar by technique and by methodology. And the Orthodox Church is playing a role, I would say, more or less emotionally mobilising people for this event in both countries. It’s mainly because the political corruption is so big, there are so discredited, and you know, you don’t have a system of values. So Church is calling for these traditional values. And this is the main argument against the West, because they are sort of defending these traditional values, which decadent West has abandoned. So, this is one of the main I would say, arguments of both in Serbia and Russia when you talk to people, they only refer to these.

Jamila Mammadova, 48:05

Thank you so much. Very interesting, Daniel, anything to add on Orthodox Church?

Daniel Sunter, 48:11

I would just like to add that the current Serbian patriarch was highly criticised by pro-Russian organisations in Serbia, for not being enough pro-Russian, because he was openly criticising the war and victims of the war. I mean, he specifically mentioned Ukraine, and victims of war. And this is something which was not seen well, received well, and not applauded by the pro-Russian organisation. So, I don’t see the attitude of church to be so unified when it comes to the political messaging, to especially when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Jamila Mammadova, 48:54

Okay, all clear. So, there is one last question here. I mean, it’s probably quite a large question, but perhaps somebody will, some of you will pick on it and comment. So, what do you think about the following? So, Robert Cooper is saying, the EU is now talking about enlargement to Ukraine. This means that enlargement to the Balkans is back on the agenda, but Serbia is now making itself unacceptable. So where should the EU go? Why not start with Kosovo, at least with visa liberalisation? For one thing that might give Serbia a shock? What do you think about the comment and the question, is it relevant at all? Let’s start with Daniel. You first, because you’re unmuted. Thank you.

Daniel Sunter, 49:46

Okay. So, I think that when it comes to the EU enlargement, I think the best thing for the Balkans is to integrate the whole region and not to choose one or another country because of the previous experiences and the way how previous member states were treating candidate states. So, issues between Slovenia and Croatia, the current issues between Bulgaria and North Macedonia is I think, a good, good example of it. So, I think that Brussels should see the Western Balkans as a whole when it comes to the integration.

Jamila Mammadova, 50:31

I see. Okay, what about you, Sonja? What would you comment on this?

Sonja Biserko, 50:36

I think they have to pick up lesson from the Balkan’s as a whole too, because, you know this regression in the democratic development of region is a great problem, because in the first 10 years after 2000, the region was progressing, and EU was mobilising the societies. And you know, there were some sort of hopes and perspectives open. But in the meantime, especially during Vučić’s time he totally destroyed political dialogue. He destroyed media, civil society and so on. So, you don’t have political life anymore, which is extremely important for the province to the EU. So, I think EU has to show some kind of historical patience for the societies, but still, sort of take them in one goal, maybe the special arrangement? They have to sort of show this willingness and resoluteness that Western Balkans belong to the European civilization circle. I mean, we do not belong there yet by political culture, because it is far from that. But on the other side, it won’t change just by prolonging this process of accession, which apparently was not proper, because EU has ever monitored how these reforms were taking. They were just writing reports on relying on, you know, the laws of strategies that were passed, but have never looked into the substance of, and how it was implemented in these societies. So, there is also responsibility on the EU and the Commission, how they treated the region, and they allowed this penetration, both Russia and China. Serbia is China’s hub for the euro. So, I think it’s very important that in the next phase, especially now at the summit in June, French presidency should come up with a concrete proposal for how to deal with the Western Balkans.

Jamila Mammadova, 52:27

Okay, and yourself, Dr Anastasakis, what would you say about this?

Dr Othon Anastasakis, 52:32

Yes, I particularly agree with, you know, the other two speakers in the sense that I’m also very much in favour of proceeding with enlargement and the Western Balkan countries becoming member states of the European Union. But there is a big but, in the sense that enlargement is actually a whole process that is conditioned by criteria, and especially political criteria are the most important criteria before you embark on any other kind of accession negotiations. Now, there is a big dilemma here, in the sense that, obviously, you have to be generous and give the cover, but then you also have to deal with various undemocratic practices that are happening in these countries, and these needs to be addressed. I mean, there is the West believes that Vučić is not a very democratic leader, there’s been a lot of criticism, actually about appeasing Vučić. Now, if we believe that Vučić has been appeased that makes a national strategy actually quite difficult, because when you go for the political criteria, you’re constantly bumping into various obstacles. And the announcement then cannot proceed. What I would say is that the European Union should not sacrifice its own red lines, it should actually be very much forceful in its democratic conditionality. This, for me, is particularly significant in order for the European Union to continue to be this normative power that it wants to be, this transformational power. There is obviously a very big injustice here in the sense that accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania have to start, especially in the case of North Macedonia. Having the whole problem of Greece of these years, and now having a problem with Bulgaria that is totally unfair towards Macedonians. We’ve actually been preparing for this kind of moment, and they’re not seeing it happening. So, there needs to be some kind of pressure towards Bulgaria to lift its veto, and for the accession talks to start going on. Serbia and Montenegro are in the accession process already. So, the European Union should be particularly strict with its own criteria. I don’t think that they should be lenient, especially in terms of political criteria. The European Union needs to be convincing that it actually means enlargement. But at the same time, it’s also convincing that it is adopting its own rules, because there’s always the fear that you get countries inside the European Union that gradually become like Hungary or Poland, and then you’ve got problems while their member states as far

Sonja Biserko, 55:22

Can I add one more point? I would just like to point out the necessity, and I would say, it is an imperative for regional cooperation’s facing the past, especially here in Serbia, to sort of deconstruct these stereotypes that are dominating, especially in Serbian culture towards all neighbours. And you know, also relation to the war criminals who are glorified here, you have murals all over the city, all over the buildings in my neighbourhood, but also in the centre of the city. So, this is something that EU Commission haven’t paid enough attention to, neither have individual members of the EU. And I think this is one of the, value wise, very important issues to be addressed properly, you know, this Facist-isation of the country, these extremist groups and official policies, this is something that has to be stopped. It was tolerated for too long. Now I think in this new context, if we are talking about Western values, we have to apply them to the Western region as well. It’s not enough to talk about the tribunal, because it’s not appreciated, especially here in Serbia, but also in some other countries. Because all these judgments are relativized, the annulled, they are not recognised as relevant for the society, there is no dialogue on that. We are now living in after the Second World War, this Anti-Fascist use of movement was one of the most relevant movements in in the in Europe, but now it’s denied by almost each successive state. And I think that Europe has to do something with that. And we have to deconstruct these cultural models based on ethnic principle. And this is what is prevailing in the region. If you want the tolerant liberal society, you have to deal with that.

Jamila Mammadova, 57:22

All good points, Sonia. Thank you so much. As we have seen in Ukraine, more recently, UK probably played a more proactive role. Definitely, more proactive than the European Union. Okay. On this note, perhaps I would move to Daniel for his last comments. And I think we can wrap up the discussion slowly, because we had one minute left.

Daniel Sunter, 57:45

Oh, sure. So, I would just like to add something to Sonia’s remarks related to this ultra-right-wing views and related to the past. I was recently doing a project in Bosnia. And as I was discussing this issue of perceptions of genocide and war criminals and everything, I was walking through the streets of Moscow. And I saw there some streets named after war criminals from the World War Two, which were actively involved in Holocaust. It’s a big problem. And I will not necessarily address this issue only to Serbia, but also to other nations in the region, including some nations, which are now part of the European Union. So, it’s a big problem all over the Balkans in a way. And I’m not actually sure what is the best way to, address this, as some member states of European Union are still facing with the same problem. This, this was my only comment related to that. Thank you.

Jamila Mammadova, 58:51

Okay, thank you so much. So, on this note, unfortunately, we have to wrap up the discussion. It was quite fascinating to be with you today. And we received quite positive feedback already in the chat section over here, but also, I’ve been receiving emails. So, it’s good to know that people are interested. I’m sure they will be asking more questions afterwards. And if anything, I will just direct those to you, if you do not mind. Thank you so much. And have a lovely evening. And we hope to see you sometime soon again. Thank you.

Dr Othon Anastasakis, 59:25

Thank you very much. Thank you.

Daniel Sunter, 59:27

Thank you. Bye.


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