There is a Russian saying, “С кем поведешься, от того и наберешься”, which roughly means that all things good and bad tend to rub off the company you keep.
By rolling out the red carpet to the Russia-backed leader of occupied South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov, Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik is mixing in bad company.
What’s worse, he does this with the Kremlin’s blessing and facilitation. This is not good news for Dodik, the Republika Srpska or the whole region.
Questioned about Georgia’s diplomatic protest over the visit, the RS president said: “So what?”
And he is right. It is not Georgia that Dodik has to worry about, but Moscow – because what kind of friend would fling on you a guest like Bibilov? And what for?
Let’s put things in context. Bibilov is a paratrooper, schooled in Russia’s military from the age of 15. He was sent from Russia to his native South Ossetia to command the separatist Special Forces in 1994.
In 1998, he changed the badge on his sleeve and became the Russian “peacekeeper”, effectively recruiting and training local militias for future conflicts.
When Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, he was the deputy commander of the Russian peacekeeping battalion that fought the Georgian troops.
After Russia seized South Ossetia, and formally recognized the region’s “independence”, he was appointed Minister for Emergency Situations.
This meant he was effectively subordinated to Sergey Shoygu, a person he has admitted to being friends with since 1994.
Shoygu is a known figure in Serbia, as the father-founder of the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš.
He is also well known in Georgia. As head of the Russian Emergency Agency, he pioneered the innovative “humanitarian operations” that brought arms to the separatist South Ossetians and then to Abkhaz forces in 1992-1994.
Shoygu is currently Russia’s Defence Minister, in which role he oversees support for separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine.
After his distinguished military career, Moscow forced Bibilov onto South Ossetia as its “president” – in a second attempt.
Embarrassingly, he was defeated by an unlikely challenger in 2011 but the results were later conveniently annulled. Finally, in 2014 he was “elected” successfully.
Compared to Republika Srpska, South Ossetia is a dismal place. It is only recognized by three Russian clients – Nicaragua, Venezuela and tiny Nauru.
Only about 53,000 people officially live there, which makes it roughly the same size as Šabac in Serbia.
International observers consider even that number exaggerated. Close to 90 per cent of South Ossetia’s budget consists of Russian transfers. All its pensions, salaries and benefits are paid from the Russian budget.
Essentially, it serves as a Russian military base – which is built on the bulldozed villages where ethnic Georgians lived until August 2008.
Some 4,500 Russian military, an additional 900 or so Ministry of Security Troops, plus an unspecified number of South Ossetian servicemen, merged with the Russian military last year, are based there.
This means there is one Russian military for every tenth local resident. Their weapons include ballistic missiles, heavy tanks and large-caliber artillery. Their missiles can reach Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.
Their forward positions are within a ten-minute drive from the main highway – the equivalent of the E-75 in Serbia – and can split the country in two at any point.
Almost every month, Russian border troops move the boundary, cutting deeper into Georgian territory, which has become known as “creeping annexation”.
Last month, Bibilov’s men bulldozed 163 houses in the Georgian village of Eredvi, from where the population was ethnically cleansed by Russian and South Ossetian troops in 2008.
So, when President Dodik says South Ossetia is the “Srpska of the Caucasus”, Balkan and European leaders might think what it would really mean for Europe if Republika Srpska was like South Ossetia and take notice.
Bibilov could not have arranged this visit without clearance from Russia, and Dodik would not particularly reach out to South Ossetia on his own initiative.
Bibilov met President Putin on 14 November, where his Balkan voyage was undoubtedly discussed.
If the Kremlin’s hand is at play, and if what Russia’s President wants to do is to send a message – he can make Bosnia and Herzegovina an even larger mess than it already is.
Bibilov is an ideal candidate to serve as a shady security back-channel with Moscow. First, he is close to Minister Shoygu. Second, he is a military man with a strong record of training paramilitary forces.
Russia has been using troops tagged officially as “Abkhaz” or as “South Ossetian” as mercenaries in its conflicts in Ukraine and even in Syria. Worryingly, almost immediately after Bibilov’s visit, Dodik had to deny media reports – confirmed by Bosnian officials – that the Russian mercenaries were training Dodik-loyalist paramilitaries.
The truth is hard to nail down in a polarized country like Bosnia. It is clear, though, that Moscow is building linkages between its client states – South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Luhansk and Donetsk “Republics” in Ukraine, Syria and now also Republika Srpska – to create a belt of instability that moves the line of his confrontation with the West further away from Russia’s borders.
Putin aims to keep the EU and US bogged down in small-intensity conflicts, where the Kremlin holds the keys to escalation.
Dodik might be offering him just a perfect opportunity. Bibilov – just like Dodik – is a pawn in this larger game.
In a recent interview, the RS leader said he won’t launch a referendum on RS independence in 2018, but would try to “build momentum” for it.
What would happen if Russia was to swing decisively in support of Republika Srpska’s independence and consider recognizing it?
How would Bosnia’s authorities react if the “little green men” – Russian soldiers without markings – appeared on the administrative borders of RS? How would the EU and US engage, if at all?
Just like Putin, Dodik is adept at playing the spoiler to improve his bargaining position. But Dodik might find out that predictable enemies are better than one powerful, but reckless friend.
Jaba Devdariani served as OSCE Human Rights Officer in Bosnia in 2003-2006 and the Head of OSCE Political Office in Belgrade in 2010-2012. He is one of the founders of Civil Georgia (www.civil.ge) – a trilingual news portal that has been published since 2001.