THE BLOG
12/09/2014 04:57 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

Putin's 'Yugoslavian Scenario' Threatens Balkan Interfaith Relations

Vladimir Putin has, it seems, followed many parallels between his policy in Ukraine -- with, by implication, his regime's previous interference in Georgia -- and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Like the terror wrought then by Christian Orthodox-majority Serbians and Montenegrins against Catholic-majority Croatia, Muslim-plurality Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Muslim-majority Kosovo, the Russian seizure of Crimea was preceded by a propaganda offensive proclaiming the defense of extremist Orthodox Christian ideology. Russian-directed fighters against Ukrainian authority in eastern Ukraine style themselves as "Orthodox combatants," although the majority of practicing Christians in the two countries are Orthodox, as noted on Russia and Ukraine by the CIA World Factbook.

Putin has also claimed repeatedly that the ongoing Russian incursions in Ukraine are justified by Western support for the separation of Kosovo from Serbia in 1998-99. The argument is false. Kosovo had a historic Albanian majority that was brutally suppressed by Serbian and Yugoslav rulers; Russian allegations of their persecution by Ukrainians today are made without significant evidence. Further, Albanians are non-Slavs, and had little in common, culturally, with their past Serbian overlords. In contrast, thanks to Putin's opposition to European integration by the former Communist states, the main difference between Russian and Ukrainians today is political rather than cultural. Both Russians and Ukrainians are Slavs.

Russia endorses Serbia's effort to deny international recognition for the Kosovo Republic. In October, Putin visited Belgrade, the Serbian capital, for a commemoration of the 1944 liberation of the city from the Nazis. During that trip, according to the official Russian ITAR-TASS news agency, Putin reassured Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić of Moscow's help against the Kosovar Albanians. Nikolić responded, "Your support... especially on the Kosovo issue, is highly precious for us today."

On December 4, Putin delivered annual his "state of the union" discourse in Moscow. He gave free rein to provocative allegations against the West, extending, it appeared infinitely, back through Russian history. Like Serbia, which claimed Kosovo as its "Jerusalem," Putin described Crimea as equivalent to the Temple Mount for Jews -- the precinct known as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. Because skirmishes have occurred recently over control of the sacred zone in Jerusalem, Putin's comment may have been pure demagogy.

Yet as reported in the London Financial Times, Putin declared in the speech, "Hitler with his misanthropic ideas tried to destroy Russia and throw us back behind the Urals. Just remember how that ended. If [Russia's annexation of Crimea] had not happened, they would have found another excuse for holding Russia back and Russia down. This has been happening for centuries -- every time the west thinks Russia is getting too strong, they use these policies."

Putin would seem to have forgotten that the defeat of Hitler during the second world war was achieved by an alliance of Soviet Russia with the U.S. and Britain -- and that the same Western governments, with France, had supported tsarist Russia in the first world war.

But Putin went on to accuse the West of "a Yugoslavian scenario" in Russia. The breakup of Yugoslavia, in the Russian ruler's mind, originated in Western intrigues, rather than in unbearable internal tensions. Recognition of independent Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 was opposed by then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, who travelled to Belgrade and announced that separation from Belgrade would be "neither encouraged nor rewarded."

While the end of Yugoslavia was predictable and the object of warnings by foreign as well as domestic observers, nobody has suggested lately that Russia is about to disintegrate. Putin, however, may see Ukraine, Georgia, and other former Russian imperial and Soviet possessions as part of the Russian motherland, and their sovereignty as a threat to Russia.

If there is a "Yugoslavian scenario" at work inside Russia, it embodies, to emphasize, Putin's similarity in conduct with that of the late Belgrade tyrant, Slobodan Milošević. Like Milošević, Putin invades neighboring countries and seeks to partition them, while projecting his own country as their intended victim.

Putin said additionally, on December 4, "The deterrence policy was not invented yesterday... it has been always conducted toward our country, for decades, if not centuries... Every time somebody considers Russia is becoming too powerful and independent, such instruments are turned on immediately." This ahistorical fantasy of Russia as the eternal martyr to external evil is a constant feature of the country's present-day media narrative.

The other "Yugoslav" component of Putin's speech is ex-Yugoslavia itself. Russia has shifted suddenly, against membership in the European Union (EU) for Bosnia-Hercegovina, although a presumption of EU entry has dominated Bosnian politics since the imposition of peace through the Dayton Accords of 1995. Russia may also oppose EU membership for Montenegro, a former Yugoslav constituent in which Russian economic holdings have become influential. Both countries are candidates for affiliation with the NATO military pact, although pro-Serbian elements in Bosnia and Montenegro oppose NATO and are ambivalent about the EU.

As quoted in the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje [Liberation], on October 5, Borut Pahor, the president of Slovenia -- a former Yugoslav component that joined the EU and NATO in 2004 -- called on NATO to admit Bosnia rapidly, "against the spread of Russian influence and [as] a guarantee of [Bosnian] state integrity."

A Russian threat to Bosnia-Hercegovina could mean a rupture of delicate interreligious relations maintained in the country since Dayton. Bosnia is still divided between a "Republic of Serbs" and the "Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina," with the latter comprising Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. In Bosnia, Putin may rekindle a fire away from Ukraine but, as we saw in the 1990s, abominable in its human casualties.