Russia is not against NATO; we are against its expansion us
By: Edina Bećirević, Nerzuk Ćurak,
and Vlado Azinović
Skilled diplomat, observant and articulate professional, the first man of Russian diplomacy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a special expert on the situation in the Western Balkans – in our interview, ambassador Bocan-Kharchenko proved to be a very pleasant and engaging conversationalist whose interpretations, not only of diplomatic but also of key political and security issues, cannot be disregarded. In a dynamic discussion characterized by a high level of constructive disagreement, ambassador Bocan-Kharchenko talked about relations between NATO and Russia, the Russian proposal for a system of European security, political and economic relations between Russia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as about issues within Bosnia and Herzegovina, putting special focus on the importance of strengthening the entities while, at the same time, not hiding on which side of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian triangle his sympathy lies.
Mr. ambassador, in the range of Russian foreign policy priorities, what place is occupied by the Western Balkans?
If we look at it from a historical perspective, it is one of the most important regions, but at this moment, its importance is additionally highlighted for Russia. Namely, in addition to traditional and historical ties, we also have economic ones. In the broader region, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, we have started working on key projects that will make Russia an unavoidable economic and energy factor in the Western Balkans, as well as in Europe. I refer first of all to the South Stream [pipeline], which we have had intensive negotiations about with several countries; I think the implementation of this project will begin very shortly. The former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union had strong economic ties, but we both lost a lot after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. However, Russia has worked on developing strong relationships with each of the states of the former Yugoslavia, and on that basis, we are now developing economic ties. It is important to note that this fits into a broader concept of Russian strategic relations with the European Union, the most important element of which is joint energy projects. The Western Balkans, of course, also play a very important role because of political and security issues, since some of the problems in these countries are still subject to considerations at the UN Security Council. The Western Balkans is in Russia’s extended neighborhood and it is in our interest that our neighborhood is peaceful and stable. As a permanent member of the Security Council, Russia is actively involved in work on and considerations of the unsolved problems of this region. Moreover, we regularly participate in the work of the Peace Implementation Council.
You say that it is in the interest of Russia to have a peaceful and stable neighborhood. The opinion prevails in the region that only NATO membership can secure permanent peace here.
We completely understand the ambitions of Western Balkan countries for more guarantees of peace and security. Regarding the intensity of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, fifteen years is a short time in which to forget the memories of tragedies, and it is clear that this very human feeling, of insecurity, results in political demands for security guarantees, for a ”security umbrella” that would prevent something similar from happening in the future. We think that NATO expansion is just one of the options, but that the best solution is our proposal for a European Security Treaty.
What is the essence of that proposal?
The proposal of the President of Russia for a mutual agreement on European security is very significant. It essentially answers the question, what is security in general? Namely, security can be provided only if one starts from the precondition that, among countries, there is no difference in the understanding of the term – only equal security, security for all, can guarantee permanent security
for the Western Balkans.
It seems to us that you don’t see the Russian proposal on European security and NATO as mutually exclusive. Can Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, be a NATO member and, at the same time, accept the European security treaty?
That’s a good question. Accession to any union, or the signing of any agreement, is a sovereign decision and an internal matter for every state. Of course we do not want to impose our vision, but as for NATO expansion, we have the right and obligation to present our opinion like any other state. We think that NATO expansion does not provide the guarantees I just mentioned. NATO expansion does not create a situation of equal security for all; instead, there is a conflict of interest in Europe between countries that are NATO members and those which are not. The European Security Treaty is another option, in conflict with the idea of NATO expansion. This means that, along with that agreement, it is necessary to develop a new security system in Europe.
Don’t we already have what Russia is proposing, through OSCE?
You are right, but we are concerned about the imbalance of OSCE activities in the last few years. As for NATO, the problem is that NATO strategies do not correspond to the current situation in Europe, but are based on the continuity of activities from the Cold War era. However, despite the difficult situation we had in Russia – with NATO relations in August 2008 – though not because of Russia, we are overcoming the situation one step at a time. We have managed to continue relations and the President of Russia said that he would accept participation at a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. That will be a very important step for Europe in strategic relations between Russia and NATO. We could also implement many more joint tactical activities on the ground because we share the same European security challenges. I would say that, in the future, our relations with NATO will depend on NATO’s New Strategic Concept. We will present our conclusions, on the basis of results from the meeting with NATO, to the highest levels and, of course, everything depends on the New Strategic Concept of the Alliance. There is still a question of whether that strategic concept corresponds to the new situation in Europe and the present-day demands for creation of a new European security infrastructure.
What would Russia prefer its relationship with NATO be? What kind of NATO would be a suitable partner for Russia? If you are searching for a partner in NATO at all...
In short, what we want is a partnership. In other words, we don’t want NATO imposing its interests and we want the interests of Russia to be carefully considered and taken into account. The most important thing is that all the relations of NATO, the European Union, and other countries are based on international justice. That is the most important thing. The NATO Summit and the NATO-Russia Council, held in Lisbon on November 20th and 21st, were identified by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as an important step in strengthening our relations; he called it an historical event. This, first of all, refers to the ideas proposed by Russia regarding our participation in the creation of a European antimissile shield, and which are based on the principles of equality, transparency, and responsibility in decision making. Russia also suggested a so-called ”sectioned antimissile shield” and we are completely open for continuing the dialog on that issue, but any results have to acceptable to and understandable for us. As for the New Strategic Concept of NATO, to a certain extent it demonstrates the ambition of NATO member countries for the development of constructive relations with us, which we, of course, support, and hope that this ambition will be realized in the concrete activities of the Alliance.
From a tangible geopolitical perspective, is the accession of Ukraine to NATO a ”red line” in relations? In other words, we saw that Russia reacted unilaterally in Georgia, and we would like to know whether Ukrainian accession to NATO would be the breaking point at which relations between NATO and Russia would reach, let’s say, a discord.
You are wrong when you say that Russia intervened unilaterally. There is a legal explanation for what happened in Georgia in August 2008, and I will not repeat it, because it is already known. Russia acted according to international law, and our obligation was to protect our citizens and members of our peacekeeping forces. There have been international peacekeeping forces in different capacities in Bosnia and Herzegovina for years, now through EUFOR, and each country has had the obligation to protect its own peace representatives. The same happened with the peacekeeping forces of Russia, and it is necessary to have a unified stance on the application of international law for such issues. In spite of international obligations and bilateral agreements with Russia, Tbilisi acted in aggression. That was the problem. As for Ukraine, I would say there is the basis for a good future and the efficient development of our relations. In relations between Russia and NATO, it is important to consider international law, but also that NATO accounts for the interests of Russia in its future decisions as well as for the specific interests of each individual country. You obviously follow the situation and know that it is difficult, or more precisely, impossible to speak of any national consensus that Ukrainian accession to NATO would be beneficial.
But there is national consensus in BiH. Our state institutions clearly support the Euro-Atlantic path. Milorad Dodik and some politicians in Republika Srpska used anti-NATO rhetoric in their election campaign, but the elections are over and consensus on NATO accession has not changed. since the politicians in Republika Srpska always have one ear toward the positions of Russia, do you think Russia’s anti-NATO position, which you explained earlier, has a negative impact on this established consensus? And could it even be considered Russian interference in the internal matters of Bosnia and Herzegovina?
You are wrong that the Russian position is anti-NATO. I said, and I want to repeat it once again, we are against NATO expansion. It is a completely different position. If our position was anti-NATO, it would mean that we had been confronted and that we had long-lasting, absolute, and unsolvable conflicts, like the ones NATO states and signatories of the Warsaw Pact had during the Cold War. The situation is not like that today. We have explained our arguments – we are against NATO expansion, but we suggest that everyone, including NATO members and NATO itself, as a Euro-Atlantic institution, join talks about the new proposal for European security. As for our activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they do not amount to interference in the internal matters of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, some media has published unfounded stories about trade between Republika Srpska and Russia. According to those media, Russia is blackmailing Republika Srpska with investments, and that is why some RS politicians are against NATO. This is speculation with no grounds in reality. Russia has an interest in investment not only in Republika Srpska as an entity, but also in increased levels of investment in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Therefore, it is to our advantage to have the entire country’s market open to Russian investments. But this is not connected to our political position opposing NATO expansion. In that sense, we will never bargain between political positions and economic interests. On the other hand, the countries supporting NATO expansion advocate their political positions and explain that NATO membership is in the interest, for example, of this country. Russia does not impose its positions but it explains them. We of course want to have influence, but instead of imposing our positions, we want a more open discussion through which our proposal of the European Security Treaty will be better understood. Russia does not want to accomplish its goals by putting pressure on governments; we just want to harmonize positions and improve our proposal through seminars and discussions of a political, professional, and scientific nature. That is, we presented a general concept, and we are convinced that the principle of equal security – which is the foundation of the agreement – is the best solution for European security. This principle was already accepted by our partners before, but never came to life. So, we simply want to bring to life what was previously agreed upon by the OSCE. As for your question, it is clear that our position regarding NATO, with a certain diplomatic and political leaning, has an impact on the opinions within certain countries. That means that we influence the position of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well, as a result of our policy. But, let me repeat once again, that is the case without interference in internal matters. Any final decision will be made by the leadership of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, of course, in accordance with the leadership of the entities. And as for the leadership of Republika Srpska... it’s true, there are different opinions in that entity regarding NATO membership. We think that some of those opinions are justified because of certain events during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. And every leader, whether they are in Russia or the US, takes the public’s opinions into consideration.
Excuse me, but it seems that there is not such a big difference – more of a rhetorical technicality – between being anti-NATO and anti-NATO expansion. They are more or less the same. allow me… if Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia join NATO, this is NATO expansion, right? On the other hand, if Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia do not join NATO, does this mean they will remain in a sort of vacuum? Because there are no guarantees that your strategic initiative for a singular Trans-European security concept will succeed. That would leave Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina without a security umbrella; especially Bosnia and Herzegovina, because there are no other institutions which could guarantee security. What happens then? You know that the ambition of BiH to join NATO is based mostly on the need for that security umbrella, after which we could turn to the economy, business, state-building, etc. then again, you are now talking about Republika Srpska and the different approaches in Republika Srpska. There are opinions that Bosnia and Herzegovina will not join NATO if serbia doesn’t join NATO, that is, that Republika Srpska will block the accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to NATO unless Serbia also joins. Can you tell us how you see the general context in the region?
I will repeat once again: we don’t want the creation of some sort of security vacuum. What you call a vacuum already exists in some respectable, neutral countries, as far as their international position and economic development. But, if we talk about the Western Balkans, it is clear that there is a certain security vacuum. And that security vacuum was a reason for our proposal, so that vacuum could be filled. As for the countries you mentioned, we also follow the situation and the public opinion. There are certain disagreements within each country, as there is a part of the population supporting NATO while the other part has doubts or is decisively against it. As for the interests of Russia, there are certain issues with each country after it accedes to NATO. After these years of NATO expansion, we have come to the conclusion that expansion is not suitable for Russian interests. Of course, everything depends on the region. The picture is not unique here, but it can be said that, in general, certain problems occur. I disagree with you that there is no difference between anti-NATO rhetoric and the rhetoric against NATO expansion. There is a political, but also a very tangible difference. If rhetoric is anti-NATO, it means that NATO is treated as an enemy, that the possibility of certain conflict is presumed. On the other hand, the rhetoric against NATO expansion implies a political stance which offers an alternative.
In other words, the Russian message to NATO is that the expansion is over? Could you respond to the opinion that Bosnia and Herzegovina would profit in an economic sense through NATO membership?
As for the economy, you express only the positive side of NATO membership. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO membership is also connected with state building, the development of statehood, and the strengthening of state institutions. However, the Butmir process confirmed that, under international supervision and stories that ”this is good for membership in NATO or the EU” or ”Brussels wants a safe partner”, there is not a solution that ensures state functionality. This can only be achieved by intrastate consensus and local agreements. I naturally understand that the European Union wants to have a partner in the talks. Russia also has some open issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina and wants to solve them, but only with the state. We also want to have a joint position on some issues. If there is good will, then Dayton institutions such as the Council of Ministers and the Presidency can also make excellent partners. On the other hand, a state can create an artificially centralized state and superficial institutions, but if they are not functional, then it’s not worth it. Regarding the economy, I think that EU membership should be separated from NATO membership in that respect. It is justified to connect EU membership with the economic progress of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But I think that the connection with NATO is unjustified; NATO will actually demand additional money for defense purposes.
But previous research shows that countries which have joined NATO have seen a significant growth of investments. If we look at it that way, then maybe the security climate after Bosnian accession to NATO would still be suitable for the growth of Russian investments in our country.
I see what you mean. The fact is that some European countries and NATO members think that NATO membership will be a guarantee for their investments. As for Russian companies, they don’t think the problem is in the security situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. People I talked with some five, six years ago were concerned about the security situation. They asked whether it would make sense to invest in Bosnia and Herzegovina and whether the situation was secure. But now they know very well that the security situation is stable. The problem with Russian investments lies elsewhere, in the problems with administration, bureaucracy, and the efficiency of all institutions. It is hard to overcome problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the decision-making process is very difficult, and business requires expedited solutions.
There are plenty of forecasts of RS secession, and somehow the story is in public circulation all the time. What would your position on that be? do you think that it is a realistic political option for Bosnia and Herzegovina? I don’t know if you saw the recent statement of ambassador Montgomery, former us ambassador to Croatia; he said that the secession of Republika Srpska was the only rational solution – that everything that had happened in Bosnia had led to such an outcome. What is your opinion on that?
I cooperated with Montgomery in previous years when he was Ambassador to Croatia, but also later, when he worked in Serbia. This now is his personal opinion and I wouldn’t want to comment on personal opinions. Finally, he is not a Russian either, for me to comment on from that point of view; and he is not an official of the [current] US Administration either. But as for the Russian position on the statehood of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I really don’t understand why there is often the question in public of whether Russia supports BiH as a state. We recognized the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and have never challenged that. But, if we analyze the possibilities of strengthening sovereignty, there are certain specificities in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Namely, it is difficult to assume that there is the possibility of an efficient political process that can benefit both a strong state and strong and efficient state institutions without entities. We maintain that we support the sovereignty and integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state, but as a guarantor of the Dayton Agreement we also support the entity system. Of course, the entity system does not exist without the state, but harmonization is possible.
As for the positions of Republika Srpska – you can ask their leadership about that. But based on the talks I’ve had with them, I can tell you that I understand the RS position. They are working on strengthening the status of the RS in every sense, but right now their economic and social statuses are their priority.
But, if we are talking about strengthening the status of Republika Srpska, all previous experience shows that such strengthening has been done at the expense of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. the position that the strengthening of the entities also means the strengthening of the state has been contradicted in reality.
But, in Sarajevo itself, Republika Srpska is alienated, like it is a different state. In a recent interview, a journalist asked me why I traveled more to Banja-Luka. And, allegedly, based on my frequent trips to Banja-Luka, it can be concluded that I support the Serb side. As if Republika
Srpska is not Bosnia and Herzegovina and I go across a state border by going to Banja-Luka. People who think like that support the division. In any case, I have more meetings in Sarajevo. But maybe I travel more to the RS, because it is in that part of BiH that Russia has the most interesting offers, more activity, and more cooperation. The leadership of Republika Srpska is more attuned for
You see, what you’ve said is very important. That insight is very important. I could even swallow the idea, respecting the real context, that by strengthening the entities we strengthen the state, but then it would have to happen in reality. the message of Milorad Dodik is the following: ”I will block the state to show that it cannot function, and I will develop the independence of the entity on that disadvantage. So, why wouldn’t the strengthening of the entities mean, say, the abolishment of entity-level voting? Then again, we could introduce mechanisms to protect the entity so it doesn’t lose power. That would be an affirmative idea that would mean entity strengthening and state strengthening at the same time, but in the fifteen years after Dayton, the idea hasn’t come from Republika Srpska – that is the problem. At the same time, Milorad Dodik has recently made more explicit statements that he doesn’t need BiH; moreover, he says publicly that he hates Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I would like us to talk about the position of Russia and the vision we have, and that it is necessary to secure trust by good will. If pressure is put on the RS, then there is no trust, which must exist. Republika Srpska is prepared for some constitutional measures to fulfill the conditions of the decision of the European Court, and Dodik is very clear about that. We don’t understand why there is criticism about Republika Srpska regarding this case in the European Court. In my opinion, Dodik made a number of proposals which would be in accordance with the request of the Court.
Could you tell us, in percentages, how much Russian investment in BiH goes to the RS, how much goes to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and possibly to the Brčko District? Do you think the Federation of BiH and the state leadership in some way leaves the initiative for economic relations with Russia to Republika Srpska? do you think that the BiH state leadership could do more to encourage Russian investment in the Federation as well?
It makes no sense to look at figures. Our investments indeed are mostly in Republika Srpska. We cannot say now that we will stop investing in Republika Srpska and wait until some acceptable investment balance is made between RS and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Therefore, we will not wait for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to open for investment, to be a politically correct economy. The situation now is that we have more investments in the RS. But on each contract it says that it is an investment in Bosnia and Herzegovina; investors are not politicians who care about political balances. Maybe some Western countries invest more in St. Petersburg than in Moscow, but no one says that those countries undermine the sovereignty of Russia as a result. And as for the position of Russia on Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was seen in Russia’s support to BiH in becoming a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, because this strengthens the position of BiH as a state and of course creates some additional favorable conditions.
And it sends a message that such a state can function.
We think that now it will function even better. With the new Presidency, more possibilities for BiH to have these positions are emerging, and that will have a positive impact on the work of the Security Council.
Are there any indications, Mr. Ambassador, that President Medvedev or Prime Minister Putin might visit BiH soon?
It all depends on Sarajevo. The Ambassador of each country has to write an explanatory report indicating that we now have things to talk about at the highest level. Then there is protocol, the organization of the meeting, but that is less important now. Much more important is that the talk is filled with substance and content. I have high hopes in the new leadership after the elections. BiH has the potential for electricity production, and Russia has excellent technologies and equipment. And then, through that relationship, we can begin long-term projects that will be important not only for the region and the Western Balkans, but also for Europe.
Another short question: we would like to know what you think about the new Turkish diplomatic initiative in the Western Balkans. Turkey has also positioned itself as a mediator between BiH and Serbia and, according to some speculations, there is the possibility that turkey and Russia may together position themselves as mediators for the rapprochement of political forces within BiH.
As for Turkey, we have an intensive political dialog and political consultations on the highest level. The Western Balkans, an interest to both Russia and Turkey, is on our agenda, and we will definitely continue to exchange opinions with Turkey. We think of course that Turkey is a very important country with regard to its NATO membership, but it is also a very important country for the region because of its economic potential. We have separate bilateral relations with the Ambassador of Turkey, and there are always exchanges of opinions on the ministerial level about the Balkans, but also about other issues. We often make a joint appearance at the Peace Implementation Council. And as far as positioning ourselves as mediators, Russia is ready to provide assistance in the normalization of relations. But we would prefer, and we think that the political climate would now support, that the Western Balkan countries normalize their relations themselves. Leadership in Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Zagreb has made very good steps in that direction.
So, the animosity Milorad Dodik feels toward Turkish policy is unfounded, in your opinion, as we understand it?
I cannot comment on that. You asked about the Russian position. Turkey is one of the most important strategic partners we have, and with Turkey we have a very high level of cooperation.