NATO’s Next Turf War With Russia Is in Most-Divided Balkan State

(Bloomberg) -- NATO edged out Russia in the struggle for influence in Europe’s former communist east once this year. Now it’s heading for another showdown at the site of the continent’s worst violence since World War II.

After accepting the Adriatic state Montenegro as a member, the military alliance now has its eyes on Bosnia-Herzegovina, the country where it launched its first combat operation in 1995. While NATO’s intervention helped stop the fighting between Muslims, Serbs and Croats -- at least 100,000 died here during the bloody breakup of former Yugoslavia -- ethnic tensions have remained at risk of boiling over.

Tensions were stretched further last week, when foreign ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization restarted a program that had been dormant for a decade, the Membership Action Plan, also known as MAP. While many of Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats welcome closer ties with NATO, most Serbs, and their leader Milorad Dodik, are staunchly opposed.

“Anything that means any kind of inclusion into a military alliance, NATO or otherwise, will not be supported by me,” said Dodik, an ally of Vladimir Putin who represents Bosnia’s Serbs in the country’s tripartite presidency.

Muslim member Sefik Dzaferovic said NATO membership is among “the most important foreign policy goals” for his constituents. Croat representative Zeljko Komsic also said it’s a priority, and reiterated that an earlier Serb member of the collective presidency, Nebojsa Radmanovic, showed support for MAP in 2009 when it was first discussed.

“Republika Srpska did consider NATO accession then, because we thought we should talk with the alliance. " Dodik said. "Today, the geopolitical situation has changed.”

NATO is hoping to add more members in the Balkans, where it’s locked in a struggle for influence with Russia, which has denounced the western military group’s expansion into its former sphere of influence. The former Yugoslav republics Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro are already members, while the Republic of Macedonia was invited to join in July.

Bombs, Death

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 1995 Dayton peace deal left the country of 3.5 million consisting of two sub-states, the Serb-run Republika Srpska, and the so-called Federation shared by Muslims and Croats. It also created a weak central government comprising all of the groups that has hindered decision making, economic development and political harmony, as they bicker over issues ranging from the distribution of budget funds to which flags should fly when they meet.

Dodik walked out of a meeting last week, protesting that the Republika Srpska flag wasn’t included alongside Bosnia-Herzegovina’s. His defiance of closer ties with the alliance is historical. NATO bombed Bosnian Serb forces in the final year of the war in Bosnia, after they overran the Muslim enclave Srebrenica, killing some 8,000 men and boys.

NATO also bombed neighboring Serbia, which has close ties with its ethnic kin in Bosnia, in 1999 during in the Kosovo conflict.

“Thousands of bombs and deaths of Serbs in Republika Srpska and in Serbia can’t be forgotten,” Dodik said this year. “Membership in NATO would represent humiliation for all Serbs.”

Dodik has been under U.S. sanctions for undermining Bosnia’s peace accord by calling for secession of the Serb entity. He also vows to fight post-war changes in Bosnia’s power structure, overseen by international officials, that made the country more centralized than under the original Dayton deal.

The big world powers are also at odds. Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused NATO and the European Union of "accelerating their efforts in further conquering the region" and giving countries the "false choice" that they must join either Russia or the West. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance would like to see consent in more measures needed for possible membership.

“It’s now up to Bosnia and Herzegovina to decide to take up this offer,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels. “We have given them an opportunity.”

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