Bosnian Feuding Hobbles Gas Pipeline to Cut Russian Supplies and Influence

Already struggling to contain intractable crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, the United States is also grappling with an impasse in the Balkans over a gas pipeline into Bosnia, an issue that is freighted with big geopolitical stakes.

The project, backed by both the United States and the European Union but blocked by the ethnic feuds that have long hobbled Bosnia, aims to break Moscow’s stranglehold on gas supplies to a fragile nation tugged between East and West.

The proposed pipeline, which would bring in natural gas from neighboring Croatia, a member of NATO and of the European Union, would be only 100 miles long and cost roughly $110 million, a pittance next to the $15 billion it took to build the Nord Stream gas connector between Russia and Germany.

But it would severely reduce Moscow’s influence in a highly volatile region. Russia frequently used its control of energy as a weapon against Ukraine in the years leading up to its full-scale invasion in February 2022 and has since used it to undermine European unity by offering sweet energy deals to countries such as Hungary and Serbia.

Russia has no territorial claims on Bosnia or other Balkan nations, and its main goal has been to keep them from integrating with the West.

The stalled pipeline “is much more important than just Bosnia and Herzegovina or future infrastructure in a small Balkan country,” said Vesna Pusic, a former foreign minister of Croatia who helped steer her country into the European Union in 2013.

“This is about closing the avenues for Russia’s destabilizing influence in Europe,” Ms. Pusic said in an interview. “The big avenue is of course Ukraine, and this is a little one. But if it is not closed it will grow” and radiate instability across and beyond the Balkans, she added.

Unlike other European countries that diversified energy supplies after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Bosnia has remained entirely dependent on Moscow for its natural gas.

Without alternative supplies from the West, James C. O’Brien, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said in a telephone interview, “Bosnia risks falling behind and becoming uniquely vulnerable” to pressure from Moscow.

Mr. O’Brien visited the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, this month as part of U.S. efforts to get the pipeline from Croatia moving, jolt politicians out of their domestic feuds and blunt Russian influence. “This is a vulnerability that has to be closed,” Mr. O’Brien said.

Bosnia’s main sources of energy are hydropower and local coal. But while natural gas from Russia makes up less than 5 percent of the country’s total energy mix, it helps power a big aluminum factory and fuels the heating plants that keep Sarajevo warm in winter.

A fragile amalgam of territories inhabited by Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats, few of whom are religiously observant, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina has stumbled from crisis to crisis since 1995, when the Dayton Peace Accords ended years of bloodletting in the former Yugoslavia.

The peace deal stopped wars that killed some 100,000 people in the early 1990s, but it saddled Bosnia with an elaborate and highly dysfunctional political system. The country is divided into two largely self-governing “entities” — a Muslim-Croat federation and a predominantly Serb area called Republika Srpska.

Presiding over this rickety, disjointed structure is a weak central government with three presidents, one for each ethnic group, which are supposed to share power but whose political leaders thrive on stoking division.

The Republika Srpska, led by a pugnacious Serb nationalist, Milorad Dodik, has repeatedly threatened to secede, a move that would risk setting off a new round of bloodshed. Mr. Dodik, a regular visitor to Russia, most recently on Wednesday, for meetings with President Vladimir V. Putin, is pushing a separate pipeline project that would increase gas supplies from Russia. His fief has its own gas company, Gas-Res, controlled by ethnic Serbs, and a Russian-owned oil refinery dependent on Russian crude.

Bosnia’s ethnic Croat leader, Dragan Covic, says that he supports the proposed Western pipeline but that he wants it placed under the control of a company to be run by ethnic Croats instead of by Bosnia’s existing pipeline operator, BH Gas, which is based in Sarajevo and run by Bosniaks. The company Mr. Covic wants to create would be based in the Bosnian city of Mostar, ethnically mixed but long a bastion of Croat chauvinism.

The squabbling prompted an unusually blunt intervention last month by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. In letters to the foreign ministers of Bosnia and Croatia, Mr. Blinken denounced Mr. Covic for obstructing “a critical project.” His demands for a new, ethnically Croat company, he said, “are duplicative, economically unviable and put the entire project at risk.”

“Such obvious corruption and self-dealing could jeopardize” Bosnia’s hopes of one day joining the European Union, Mr. Blinken added.

Mr. O’Brien, the assistant secretary of state, citing diplomatic confidentiality, declined to say whether the Croatian and Bosnian foreign ministers had responded to Mr. Blinken’s broadside. Both ministers declined to be interviewed.

Mr. Covic, who also declined to be interviewed, has said that he only wants to protect legitimate Croat interests, not block Bosnia’s path into the European Union.

Nihada Glamoc, director of BH Gas, acknowledged that most of her company’s executives and employees were Bosniaks but said that there was no need for a new Croat-led pipeline operator.

“It is all just political,” she said, noting that her only interest was to ensure a “diverse and stable supply” of energy.

Muris Cicic, an economist and president of the Bosnian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Sarajevo, described the bickering over the U.S.-backed pipeline and Mr. Dodik’s efforts to build an alternative to bring in more Russian gas as “a model of Bosnia’s dysfunction.”

“Everything in this country is based on ethnic differentiation, even gas,” he said, adding: “Our politicians have divided everything that can possibly be divided and placed each piece under their command. It is beyond all economic logic.”

The feuding has not only obstructed common action in the interests of the whole country, Mr. Cicic said, but also created fertile ground for Russia to push its interests.

“Bosnia is the dividing point between East and West — the point where Russia can easily provoke instability through people like Dodik,” Mr. Cicic said.

Mr. Dodik, he added, might be the most open in expressing a desire to redraw Bosnia’s borders and keep it out of the European Union, but he is not alone in promoting narrow ethnic and often corrupt interests at the risk of stoking tension and even violent conflict.

“We unfortunately have lots of Dodiks here,” he said.

The European Union accepted Bosnia as a “candidate country” in 2022, part of its efforts to blunt Russian influence in the Balkans after the invasion of Ukraine. But formal negotiations have not started and the European bloc’s executive arm in November delivered a bleak assessment of Bosnia’s prospects, saying the country had made “no progress” in fighting corruption and dawdled on “socio-economic reforms” demanded by Brussels.

The idea of building a pipeline to bring in gas from neighboring Croatia has been around for nearly 15 years, ever since Russia cut off gas deliveries through Ukraine to the Balkans in 2009 and left Sarajevo shivering for days in subzero temperatures.

“We were very scared by the 2009 shutdown and realized that we had zero energy security,” recalled Almir Becarevic, who ran BH Gas at the time.

Gazprom, Russia’s energy behemoth, he said, had for years seemed “just a normal company selling gas,” but “it steadily became clear that Gazprom was playing political games.” Gas, he added, “grew into a big geopolitical thing.”

Mr. Becarevic and others began lobbying for a pipeline from Croatia to end Russia’s monopoly but made little headway, even after the opening in 2021 of a facility on an island off the Croatian coast to handle deliveries of liquefied natural gas.

“For years there was nothing but blah, blah, blah,” Mr. Becarevic said. “But the war in Ukraine changed everything. The situation has now changed 100 percent.”