The task for the US, but no less for Europe, is to convince Putin that attacking Ukraine or supporting the disintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina only serves to diminish Russia’s chances of regaining global power.
By: Senad Pećanin
The future of Europe at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century will be determined by the destinies of Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina. These two countries have for years been the victims of two opposing relational forces among the European countries: the principles established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and the foundations of the European interstate architecture adopted in the Final Declaration of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975. The Congress of Vienna had the task of “calming the ground” in Europe following revolutionary upheaval and war, including the Napoleonic conquests. It created the ‘Holy Alliance’ of German (Prussian), Austrian and Russian powers. It was later joined by all European countries except Great Britain, and its goal was to restore and preserve the conservative, Christian identity-based order. The Congress of Vienna was a coordinated response to the “spectre” of liberal and revolutionary ideas which, as a result of the French Revolution of 1789, spread unstoppably through Europe. The First and Second World Wars were cataclysmic events that clearly demonstrated the accumulated contradictions around the roles, importance and rights of the individual countries in the European but also global geo-political context, which was only temporarily brought into balance by the Berlin Congress of 1878.
Putin’s supporters in Europe
The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, signed in Helsinki on August 1st, 1975 (by all European countries except Albania, plus the United States and Canada), represents a legally accepted obligation for international decency in relations between countries. The preamble and first article of the Final Act state that the signatories declare their readiness to respect and implement, in their relations with other participating states – and regardless of their political, economic or social system or their size, geographical location or level of economic development – the following principles: ‘Participating States will respect each other’s sovereign equality and individuality, as well as all the rights inherent in and encompassed by its sovereignty, including in particular the right of every State to juridical equality, territorial integrity, and freedom and political independence. They will also respect each other’s right freely to choose and develop political, social, economic and cultural systems, as well as its right to determine its laws and regulations. Within the framework of international law, all the participating States have equal rights and duties. They will respect each other’s right to define and conduct as it wishes its relations with other States in accordance with international law and in the spirit of the present Declaration. They consider that their frontiers can be changed in accordance with international law, by peaceful means and by agreement. They also have the right to belong or not to belong to international organisations, to be or not to be party to bilateral or multilateral treaties, including the right to be or not to be party to treaties of alliance; they also have the right to neutrality.’
While not a single European country, including Russia, has withdrawn its signature from the Helsinki Final Act, it sounds like a humorous read today. Especially to the citizens of Ukraine, who for weeks now have feared that Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin will continue the conquests which he began in Georgia in 2008 and continued six years later with the occupation of Ukrainian territories in Donetsk and Luhansk, the annexation of Crimea, and a training exercise in the recent military intervention by special forces in Kazakhstan. While residents of Kiev are stockpiling medical supplies and receiving information about the nearest Cold War nuclear shelters as they listen to the echoes of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border with Belarus, Putin’s supporters in Europe – such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Croatian President Zoran Milanović, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić – speak with great sympathy about Russia’s right to its own security. This right is in complete contradiction to Article One of the Helsinki Final Act and represents the restoration of Brezhnev’s doctrine of “limited sovereignty”, which was imposed on all communist states of the former Soviet Warsaw Pact.
The European Union, although a global economic power, is once again proving to be a political and military dwarf. While it seems that the UK’s withdrawal was a result of the Conservative Party’s use of populism in order to retain power, the clearest justification for its strategic thinking is in its attitude towards Ukraine itself; more precisely in the difference between the UK and the most powerful European Union state, Germany. Nothing illustrates short-sighted German egoism in protecting its own economic and energy interests better than the fact that British military planes, carrying aid to Ukraine in the form of defensive armaments, were not permitted to overfly German airspace?!
Bosnia and Herzegovina as a paradigm for the future of Europe
Given the power, importance and role of Germany in the EU, it is worth looking at two key sets of arguments by which Germany defends its shameful attitude towards Ukraine and, by extension, towards Putin’s Russia. The first concerns an alleged sense of historical unease and guilt over Nazi aggression against Russia in World War II; the second relates to concerns about energy security and the importance of supplying Germany with Russian gas.
Both arguments are false. The first because the historical unease over Hitler’s aggression and crimes does not give Germany the right to remain neutral as long as Putin treats Ukraine in the same way; in addition, as many as 10 million Ukrainians lost their lives against the German Nazis (including during the liberation of Belgrade), and more Ukrainians than Russians died on the Eastern Front in World War II. On the other hand, although Ukraine has never (unlike Russia) exploited the fact that most of Europe is still supplied with Russian gas via a pipeline running through its territory, Germany went ahead and built the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which bypassed Ukraine and enabled Putin to shred its territory piece by piece.
Unfortunately corruption is of great importance for egoistic German state policy. More precisely, Russian corruption of local political, cultural and public figures in all the countries, from Europe to America, in which Russia considers itself to have an interest. At the same time, Putin’s regime is not squeamish at all: it doesn’t matter whether they are influential people from large or small nations, right or left, active or former politicians, government or opposition, intellectuals or artists, Christians or Muslims… The most striking example of purposeful, strategic investment in ‘decision and opinion makers’ is the incredible, incomprehensible fact that immediately after the end of his term the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder became, and remains today, the official public mercenary of Gazprom.
On the other hand the fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a paradigmatic roadmap for the future of Europe. While enjoying Russia’s undisguised help Serbia – with the support of Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia – has brought Bosnia and Herzegovina to the brink of a new war. Open threats of secession by Republika Srpska, an entity founded on genocide, are met with lukewarm resistance from the European Union.
If BiH is “Yugoslavia in miniature” (as Serbian nationalists call it), then the whole Balkans is Europe in micro. If in today’s constellation of relations BiH (and consequently Northern Macedonia and Montenegro) cannot survive, then today’s ‘Europe’ (EU) cannot survive even at its current dysfunctional level. The differences between most EU members with their liberal democratic systems on the one hand, and Orbán’s “illiberal” Hungary on the other, are greater than those that exist between BiH, Northern Macedonia and Montenegro on the one hand, and Serbia on the other. Serbia today is a permanent threat to the stability, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the countries bordering it. Unlike in Ukraine, endangering the right of BiH to exist has an added dimension: the fact that the majority population in this centuries-old multi-confessional country are Muslims – ethnic Bosniaks. The present rejection of demands to define Europe as a community of peoples of exclusively Christian identity will, in the evolving fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina, reveal the true character of today’s European Union. If Orbán is right when he says publicly that for the EU the problem of BiH’s integration is its two million Muslims – indigenous Slavic peoples and the world’s most secular Muslims – then there is no essential difference between European relations towards Russia and towards Serbia. And this relationship, according to what we have witnessed so far, is flexible enough in the belief that it can accommodate Greater Russian and Greater Serbian imperial, in essence neo-fascist, aspirations without consequences. Clearly history is often not our teacher (see under: Munich Agreement of 1938, signatories Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier, Great Britain and France, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Third Reich and Italy).
Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina face the delicate task of choosing a strategy of resistance to the aggression of militarily superior neighbours. Although it may seem cynical, these countries do not have a smarter choice than in pointing to international law and the interests of Europe as a whole. The defenders of BiH face an additional trap: despite the fact that all neo-fascists in Europe loudly or tacitly support the country’s disintegration (also) because of the Muslim identity of its majority Bosniaks, the state cannot be preserved by their fighting primarily as Muslims. And the leader of the leading nationalist Bosniak party, Bakir Izetbegović, is doing exactly that: he has publicly announced his courting of Islamic countries for help in defending his country. He clearly does not understand that Islamic countries cannot protect his homeland, and that the only chance for the survival of both the country and his people is based on defending Bosniaks as authentic European people – whatever that means!
The entire world is trying to figure out whether Vladimir Putin will really pursue military aggression against Ukraine. A lucid answer was given by Gennady Sisoyev, Western Balkans correspondent for Russia’s Kommersant. He reminds us that President Obama called Russia a “regional power”. Given Putin’s repeated professions that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century, clearly this assessment would have been a stab to the heart. Russia’s role in the Syrian war, but also across the Middle East, gave Putin an excellent opportunity to prove that Russia remains much more than a regional power. Putin is also aware that established geopolitical orders and relations change only after major historical events (World War I – Versailles Conference; World War II – Yalta Conference in Crimea (today’s Ukraine); Cold war – “The End of History”). Therefore, Sisoyev concludes, his decision to attack Ukraine will depend on whether he believes the threat itself is enough to bring about negotiations with the US – after which no American president would think of describing Russia as a “regional power” in the foreseeable future.
The task for the US, but no less for Europe, is to convince Putin that attacking Ukraine or supporting the disintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina only serves to diminish Russia’s chances of regaining global power. For now neither the US or the EU (unlike the UK) is up to this historic task. A big question is whether they will have a chance to make amends in the similar geo-political play-off they will face when China starts “cementing” its position as a global superpower by preparing aggression against Taiwan.
About the author:
Senad Pećanin is a lawyer, publicist and journalist. He holds a master’s degree in “Ethnicity as a source of legitimacy of political power” from the University of Bologna. He is the winner of several prominent Bosnian and international awards for journalism and human rights. He is a contributor to a number of well-regarded media outlets in the region and globally.