November 9, 2021 - 11:58am

The timing of Viktor Orbán’s surprise trip to Banja Luka on Saturday, for talks with Bosnian-Serb leader Milorad Dodik, has been turning heads as Bosnia-Herzegovina teeters on the brink of disintegration.

Reporters were kept at a careful distance from the meeting, at which Orbán was accompanied by his foreign minister Péter Szijjártó. The encounter came as the internal affairs of the fragile West Balkan state looked set to erupt into a major foreign policy crisis for the EU. According to the first report of Christian Schmidt, the UN’s new High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, the country “presently faces the gravest threat of the post-war period”.

President Dodik has announced his intention to execute unilateral withdrawal of Republika Srpska (RS) from involvement in key federal structures including the justice system, tax authority and, most ominously, the armed forces. Over the last three years RS has shown signs of developing separate military capacity, via the creation of a heavily armed gendarmerie and ‘independent’ militias trained by Russian irregulars. Dodik’s proposals are secession in all but name and risk a return to armed conflict. This presents a nightmare scenario for the EU and NATO which share responsibility for maintaining the Dayton Agreement, which put an end to the Bosnian Wars in 1995. 

What then was Viktor Orbán, the EU’s most provocative strong man, seeking to achieve for himself via this unexpected visit? An effort to calm the waters seems unlikely, especially given claims made by Dodik’s team following the meeting regarding ‘Hungary’s full support’ and Orbán’s announcement of a major investment programme in RS.

The unexplained transit, the same day, of a Hungarian 140-seat military transporter plane from Budapest to Banja Luka, via a stopover in Belgrade, raises its own questions. The eruption of a diplomatic crisis in the West Balkans could benefit Orbán in several ways, especially when it comes to gratifying Moscow.

Undermining the EU and NATO’s shared role in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s internal affairs has long been a priority for Vladimir Putin. Orbán is presently in Moscow’s diplomatic debt following the favourable renegotiation of Hungary’s 10 billion Euro credit line for construction of the country’s new, Russian-built Paks II Nuclear Power Plant and a separate contract for the delivery of an annual 4.5 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas. 

A crisis could also benefit Orbán directly: a Balkan upset would distract the commission from dealing with Hungary’s rule of law issues and strengthen his negotiating hand, given that EU foreign policy action is still subject to unanimity. In furthering Russian interests in Bosnia, Orbán might also be helping his own.

Alexander Faludy is a law student and freelance journalist.