Fears grow of Russian meddling in Bosnian election

Predsjednik Ruske Federacije Vladimir Putin. Foto: EPA-EFE/GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN

Fears grow of Russian meddling in Bosnian election

9. September 2022.14:33
9. September 2022.14:33
Experts and officials fear Russia could exploit Bosnia and Herzegovina’s weaknesses to influence this October’s election

This post is also available in: Bosnian

Experts and western officials say this could include cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns to influence how people vote and disorder carried out by Kremlin-backed groups.

The October election is seen as a key test of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s struggling and hugely complex administration, with three main factions in the country, Bosnaiks, Serbs and Croats, pulling in different directions.

While Bosniaks and Croats largely agree that the country’s future is in the EU and NATO, they are divided by a host of other issues.

Politicians and pundits from the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity insist, however, that there is nothing to fear from Russia, which is seen in a key aly and friend to the Serb people.

Fears of Cyber Attack

Officials from a NATO-backed organisation and the EU, speaking to BIRN Bosnia’s TV Justice show, said Russia’s track record of meddling in the USA in 2016 and the French presidential elections in 2017 give rise to concern.

“They are trying to exploit the existing vulnerabilities to create instability in a country and basically question the election legitimacy and outcomes,” said Janis Sarts, of NATO’s Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence, StratCom, a NATO-accredited think tank.

Johann Sattler, head of the EU delegation in Sarajevo and European Union Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told TV Justice that the block was prepared for Russian interference.

“We have seen in other countries, here in the region, very recently, massive cyber attacks. So this is something where we have to be very vigilant, but even more so where we have to be prepared,” he said, adding that the Russian focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina would not stop after the elections.

“But what I can assure you, this election season especially, we will see most likely attempts in that sphere,” Sattler said.

This summer the UK Government announced it would send two cyber-attack experts, but also invest additional funds in helping Bosnia and Herzegovina confront Russian influence.

In early September the United States of America also announced financial support for several countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, to modernise security forces and strengthen capacity “to counter Russian influence and aggression”.

Billboard in Eastern Sarajevo. Photo: BIRN BiH

Bosnian cyber security expert Predrag Puharic believes that the state is late in bolstering its defence against potential attacks.

As measured by all cyber security indexes, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s performance is very poor, he added.

“Here is an example: Apart from the OSCE guidelines for the cyber security strategic framework, Bosnia and Herzegovina has no national cyber security strategy,” Puharic explained, adding that laws on cyber security and protection of critical infrastructure are missing at the level of the state and federation.

“We have not defined the critical infrastructure and what it is that we should protect anyway.”

Threat of disinformation and disorder

Bosnia and Herzegovina is also facing a disinformation campaign according to experts.

Veronika Vichova of Kremlin Watch in Prague, a project narrowly specialised in monitoring Russian “harmful influence” in the Czech Republic and neighbouring countries, said that it has observed Russian disinformation campaigns during Czech presidential and parliamentary elections.

She said: “They use official channels. In the Czech Republic it is Sputnik, which is state funded, and I also know that it exists and is quite popular in the Western Balkans. But they can also use Russian paid trolls on social media.”

Russian authorities have been open about their support to the creation and work of pro-Russian groups in Bosnia.

BIRN BiH has revealed that in the past decade the Russian Embassy to Bosnia and Herzegovina has offered support to numerous organisations with extremist or extreme nationalist backgrounds.

The Bosnian branch of the Night Wolves, a Russian biker group, has around 30 members. In Russia, Putin himself is an honourable member of that group.

Led by Alexander Zaldostanov “The Surgeon”, the Night Wolves were established as a club of rock music and motorcycle fans back in the 1980s.

The group gained notoriety after participating in Russia’s annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, patrolling the streets of the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

Near the strategic north-eastern town of Brcko there is an unregistered humanitarian organisation called Sveti Geoergije Loncari, whose members wear the Russian coat of arms on their clothes and brag how the Russian Embassy to Sarajevo gifted them two vehicles.

Russian Cossacks also have associations in neighbouring countries and are planning to officially register a branch in Bosnia.

Sarts told BIRN the Russian state had a track record of placing Russian agents in, or providing financial support to, extremist or groups who are then used to “instigate disorder into the particular crisis”. “I think in most of the countries that is the natural go-to area for them,” he said.

Safet Music, a Bosnian member of the advisory board of the Institute for Security and Counter Terrorism in London, said pro-Russian groups had used violence to influence elections in the region.

“We have seen such cases and examples in our neighbourhood, where after or during the elections attempts were made to influence, even through violent protests, the results of the elections so some political options which are against the European integrations and are more populist or right-oriented would come into power,” Music said.

Bosnian Serbs dismiss Russia concerns

In Bosnia’s Serb-domianted Republika Srpska, fears of Russian meddling are rejected.

Vojislav Savic, a political scientist from Banja Luka, who is sympathetic to Russian views, told BIRN: “I cannot imagine someone intimidating anyone in Banja Luka or any other city in Republika Srpska nowadays. Of course, there will always be individuals who will use any sort of nationalism, chauvinism for concealing their actions that are not to be proud of.”

Nenad Stevandic, leader of Ujedinjena Srpska party which governs alongside the party of hardline Serb president Milorad Dodik, thinks that all parties in Republika Srpska have a similar, positive stance towards Russia.

“Both the opposition and [RS] government share the same principles of agreement with the Russian official politics and what [Russian ambassador] Kalabuhov is saying. (…) I have not noticed any differences in perception of any of the political parties in Republika Srpska. I think nothing is going to change there,” Stevandic thinks.

Dodik is among a dwindling pool of European officials still willing to visit Moscow for a meeting with Vladimir Putin. One such event has been scheduled for the second half of September, right before the elections.

“The message of such things is simply to show that you count on that country as your ally, that you have friendly relations, and in that way you show your people the atmosphere in the society and the good relations with the Russian federation,” analyst Savic added. “By doing that you are telling them ‘Here, I’m doing this so our relations with the Russian federation will be good’”

Others are less convinced of the benign nature of the relationship. Safet Music believes that Russia will focus on opposing and undermining Bosnia’s NATO membership and EU path during the election period.

“Maybe they’ll try, through some media campaigns or certain disinformation, to influence the electoral [campaign] and later on the course of the elections in terms of Bosnia’s road to NATO,” Music said.

Czech expert Vichova also warned that this campaign was likely to outlive the election.

“Russia is not just doing it right before the elections or in the short time period before the elections, they are doing this in the long term.

“In almost all European countries we have seen some signs of Russian influence at least since 2014 up until now,” she said.

The Embassy of Russia in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Dodik’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment or interview.

Irvin Pekmez

This post is also available in: Bosnian