For yesterday’s Bosnian Serbs, substitute today’s pro-Russians in Ukraine

Roots lie in collapse of two multinational, federal, communist states
Pro-Russian men attack pro-Ukrainian supporters during a pro-Ukrainian rally in Donetsk

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It is a good 2,400km from the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk to the Dutch city of The Hague. Measured in terms of international law, however, the distance is considerably shorter.

In Slavyansk, pro-Russian separatists hold hostage a team of military observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

In The Hague, the seizure of UN personnel as hostages is one crime for which Ratko Mladic, the general who commanded Bosnian Serb military forces in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, is standing trial.

Hostage-snatching is one of several threads that connect Ukraine in 2014 with Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s. Just as it is uncertain if Moscow is embarrassed by the abductions of observers in eastern Ukraine, so it was unclear if Belgrade approved or disapproved of the Bosnian Serb hostage-taking.

Still, the essential similarity of the conflicts lies in the collapse in 1991 of two multinational, federal, communist states – Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Serbs and Russians, the largest nationalities of these federations, found themselves divided into a mother country and a diaspora spread among newly independent states, notably Bosnia and Ukraine.

Whereas Yugoslavia’s civil wars coincided with its disintegration, the Soviet Union’s demise did not spark much bloodshed between Russians and non-Russians. Only now, in terms of the potential reintegration of ethnic Russians into one state, are the full implications of that seismic event starting to unfold.

“The Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders,” Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, said in March when he announced Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s deceased strongman, lamented the Serb nation’s fate in similar language in 1991.

Now the masked militants of Slavyansk, Donetsk and other eastern Ukrainian cities proclaim the goal of secession, and possible absorption into Russia, with a determination no less implacable than that with which the Bosnian Serbs sought independence and, if circumstances permitted, unification with Serbia.

For yesterday’s Republika Srpska, substitute today’s People’s Republic of Donetsk. The self-styled Bosnian Serb state was led by Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist and poet who is on trial with Mr Mladic in The Hague. The Donetsk entity is headed by Denis Pushilin, a former casino croupier who was linked in the 1990s to MMM, a Russian Ponzi scheme.

Just as the rebel Donetsk leaders have scheduled a referendum for May 11, so the Bosnian Serbs staged a plebiscite in November 1991. But there is one difference. Unlike the Bosnian Serb referendum, which asked voters if they wanted to remain part of the rump, Serbian-led Yugoslav state, the Donetsk secessionists are not explicitly asking voters if they want their region to be part of Russia. Perhaps a second annexation of Ukrainian territory is not, at least for now, the Kremlin’s purpose.

By contrast, Serb expansionists dreamt 20 years ago of a Greater Serbia that would incorporate all ethnic Serbs into one state. This covered the Serbs of Serbia, of which Kosovo then formed a part, Bosnian Serbs, Croatian Serbs, Montenegrins – a people closely related to Serbs – and even Macedonians. As for Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovar Albanians and others who lived in lands deemed exclusively Serbian by right, they were to be at best subjugated, at worst expelled, killed or otherwise “cleansed”.

Mr Putin does not talk explicitly of a Greater Russia. But two weeks ago he implied a claim on south-eastern Ukraine by labelling it “Novorossiya”, or New Russia. Anyone who thinks the Donetsk mini-state will leave no imprint on history should look at Republika Srpska. It failed to join Serbia in the 1990s, but it lives on as one of Bosnia’s two component parts – as does its dream of secession.

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