The ongoing fighting in Ukraine is making Bosnians and other Balkan nations feel the heat, as both world wars originated in Eastern Europe, where there has always been a hegemonic struggle between Russia and the Western bloc.
World War I started after the murder of the heir to the Austrian Hungarian throne in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was murdered by a Bosnian Serb assassin, who was part of a pan-Slavic secret organisation with alleged links to Russia, the old defender of pan-Slavism.
Two decades later, WWII began after Nazi Germany occupied Poland in 1939. The Soviets used the opportunity to invade then-eastern Poland, which is now part of western Ukraine.
Both triggering points of the world's two biggest wars were fatefully located in Eastern Europe. Fast forward to 2022, the region is again hit by deadly fighting between Ukraine and Russia, with larger geopolitical ambitions at play. Russia's aim is to counter NATO's influence in Eastern Europe and push the US-led alliance away from its doorstep, Ukraine.
At the beginning of all these conflicts, there was a Russian connection, a disrupting reality for many people living in Eastern Europe. The Bosnian War was triggered after the disintegration of communist Yugoslavia following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During the war, a largely Orthodox Christian state, led by the Serbs and backed by Russia, launched an onslaught against Muslim Bosniaks and largely Catholic Croats.
The sentiment continues to run deep in Serbian society. After the Russian attack on Ukraine, there were pro-Moscow protests in Serbia, alarming Bosniaks and other Balkan nations about whether the ongoing fighting could spread to other parts of Eastern Europe, leading to another global war.
In order to see how the Balkans feel about the ongoing conflict, TRT World spoke to Shafik Dzaferovic, a member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency and a leading Bosniak politician.
TRT WORLD: Could the war in Ukraine spread to the Balkans?
SHAFIK DZAFEROVIC: The Balkans are not as close to Russia as Ukraine, so it is much harder to expect such a scenario. There is a NATO space between Russia and us. However, although Russia does not touch the Western Balkans, there is a certain danger.
Only six days after his meeting in Moscow [with Putin] in December 2021, Milorad Dodik [a secessionist Bosnian Serb leader and another member of the Bosnian presidency] launched an attack on the constitutional order of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Republika Srpska Assembly has adopted conclusions violating the Dayton Accords and 27 years of its implementation.
Dodik wants to take us back to 1995 when everyone in Bosnia and Herzegovina looked at each other through their gun sights. It is dangerous, and it must be stopped. NATO and the EU are primarily responsible for stopping this dangerous development.
How have Bosnians approached the war? What are the main differences among Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Croats regarding their approach to the war?
SD: People in Bosnia and Herzegovina sympathise with the Ukrainian people. Bosniak and Croat political leaders condemned the aggression against Ukraine. Only Serb leader Milorad Dodik tried to obstruct Bosnia and Herzegovina's condemnation of Russian aggression at the UN, but he failed.
He is calling the people in Kiev (who are fighting for their bare lives) "armed gangs." At the same time, he is repeatedly expressing understanding of Russia's actions. He thus showed that he has no compassion for the victims and that he does not belong to Europe in the political sense. Even if there were some illusions, the Euro-Atlantic community must now be clear who it is dealing with when it comes to Dodik.
There have been some big pro-Russian Serbian protests in recent days. Why do Serbs want to support the Russian attack?
SD: Pro-Russian demonstrations were held in Serbia and within the Republika Srpska (RS) entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, primarily because public opinion in Serbia and parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina is strongly influenced by Russia. The authorities there are pro-Russian, pro-Russian militant organisations are viewed favourably, and the government in Serbia and the RS entity do not condemn the aggression against Ukraine in a way everyone else does.
At the same time, Russian actions against Ukraine are reviving dreams of a Greater Serbia. Many in Serbia see Russia as a force that could support them to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina and annex part of its territory to Serbia. That is why we have heard messages from NATO that Bosnia and Herzegovina is at risk. And that is why we need the support of NATO; in any case, we will fight for Bosnia and Herzegovina till the end.
Both WWI and WWII began in Eastern Europe, where Ukraine is located. Could WWIII start in Ukraine?
SD: War in Ukraine, as a conflict with such significance and such actors, is a danger for the whole of Europe and even the world. The international community is upset with good reason. Historical experience shows that the conflicts in the Balkans and beyond, in Eastern Europe, have the potential for rapid spread. Historical experience shows that appeasement in Munich in 1938 led to an escalation of Nazi aggression.
The passivity of the international community in the early 1990s led to the spread of the war in countries of former Yugoslavia. Only with the intervention of NATO, the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo were stopped. If NATO took a passive position in relation to the conflict in Ukraine, then war could spread. And only if NATO is firm and determined, no one will be interested in spreading the conflict, not even in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Western Balkans.
Why is the Ukraine conflict so dangerous in terms of triggering a global fight?
SD: The question of Ukraine is the question of whether a sovereign state can decide on its future, or if only the great powers have the privilege to decide on that. The implications of this are universal. If open aggression was legitimised, if the world agreed to it, then instead of the UN Charter, the brute-force law would apply, and that is a sure path to more and more conflicts.
Why has the Ukraine fighting happened, from your perspective?
SD: Ukraine is a victim of open military aggression. What we are seeing in Ukraine is a cynical violation of international law. Russian forces are destroying Ukrainian cities. The number of civilians who are killed is increasing.
Since the beginning of the Russian attack on the territorial integrity of Ukraine in 2014, Bosnia and Herzegovina has taken a clear position, which we still adhere to. Bosnia and Herzegovina supported a UN General Assembly resolution and joined a European Union statement condemning the aggression.
Political disputes with a sovereign state cannot be resolved by sending an army to its territory. Bosnia and Herzegovina has a special sensibility for this because we were the victims of aggression in the 1990s. It all ended with the genocide in Srebrenica. We have no right to remain silent when this is happening.
How do you see a Bosnian future regarding NATO and the EU?
SD: I see Bosnia and Herzegovina in the future as a member of the European Union and NATO.
Many members of the European Union and NATO have had problems like Bosnia and Herzegovina. Those countries have been arguing over borders, they have had strong interethnic tensions and similar problems, but many of these issues have been relaxed through the entry of those countries into the EU and NATO system.
I am sure that Bosnia and Herzegovina would solve many of its problems if it became a member of the EU and NATO. That is why there is resistance to Euro-Atlantic integration among those who refuse to accept Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As for the will of the EU itself for enlargement, I am sure that the Ukrainian crisis will raise awareness within the European Union that the admission of new members is to be seen as a geopolitical and security issue, and not an administrative one.
What kind of role can Türkiye play in the ongoing crisis in Bosnia?
SD: Türkiye has a stabilising role in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Türkiye supports our EU and NATO path. As a member of the Peace Implementation Council, Türkiye has supported 27 years of the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords.
President Erdogan gives strong support to Bosnia and Herzegovina, supports all our peoples and expects everyone to respect the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This has its effects and, combined with the awareness of Türkiye's proven determination to support its friends, softens those who are negative about Bosnia and Herzegovina.