I beg to move,
That this House has considered the maintenance of peace and stability in the Balkans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent frightening shockwaves throughout the European continent, and there is particular concern in Finland and Sweden; in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia; in Moldova, regarding Transnistria; and in the Balkans.
I well remember, as we all do, the terrible bloodshed in the western Balkans following the break-up of Yugoslavia. I visited Bosnia in 2013 as part of an inter-parliamentary delegation. I recall the harrowing stories I heard from people belonging to all ethnic groups, and I will never forget travelling by bus through the Balkans and visiting Sarajevo. We passed through numerous communities in the Balkans and saw graveyard after graveyard in every community.
A little later in the conflict, only the intervention of NATO in Kosova and Serbia prevented even more appalling bloodshed when Serbian nationalists, led by Slobodan Miloševic, tried to ethnically cleanse Kosova of Muslim Albanians. Whatever our views and our differences in this Parliament, we must all be united in our resolution to stop that happening again.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to the Chamber. He is talking about the exclusion of aircraft and an exclusion zone. Perhaps he agrees that today, when we think of Ukraine, we do so for the very same reason that a no-fly zone was wanted in the Balkans—because it would stop the murder of children, babies and elderly people, the killing of innocents and the destruction of property. Does he agree that if we want to make sure that the Russians cannot win, we need a no-fly zone so that we can protect people?
I certainly understand the sentiments the hon. Member expresses so strongly, and I am sure we all agree with those sentiments, but we must look carefully at what a no-fly zone might mean in the situation we face in Ukraine. A no-fly zone would be easy to do, but it is wrong to draw exact parallels between what happened in the western Balkans and what is happening in Ukraine today.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, there was growing concern that Bosnia and Herzegovina could once again be engulfed by ethnic bloodshed of the kind that we saw in the 1990s. The fragile Dayton peace agreement had been under strain for some time, and the President of Republika Srpska had advised of his goal of fracturing the Bosnian state. The Bosnian Serbs had announced that they were going to boycott key institutions of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Serbia has lent implied support to Dodik and his supporters in Bosnia—a country that is already seeing real unrest. I would be interested to hear the hon. Member’s views on the risks associated with an emboldened Dodik and how those risks might spread across the region.
That is the essence of my speech, and I shall come to that point, but the hon. Member has put her finger on the centrality of the issue and the difficulties that we face.
That withdrawal from the state apparatus of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the ending of Serb involvement in the tax system, the judiciary and, crucially, the army, is tremendously important. After meeting with the President of Serbia in January, the leader of Republika Srpska, Dodik, stated that a return to Bosnian state institutions could occur only if reference to genocide by Republika Srpska entities were prohibited. The boycott of Bosnian state institutions began in July last year after the EU High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina outlawed the denial of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. That is worth remembering, because in July 1995 over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred in cold blood. There can be no attempt to forget that or erase it from history. To attempt to do so is fundamentally wrong.
There is no doubt that for some time the Kremlin has been supporting the destabilisation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For a number of years Putin has been encouraging Serb nationalism, putting arms into Serb hands and stirring up ethnic hatred. In November last year the EU’s High Representative wrote that the country was facing
“the greatest existential threat of the postwar period”.
That was true when it was said in November 2021. Unfortunately, it is even more true today.
Recently, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States have reaffirmed their support for the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There has also been condemnation of the decision by the Parliament of Republika Srpska to start planning for the withdrawal of the republic from the state institutions and apparatus of Bosnia. Following a United Nations Security Council mandate, EUFOR, the EU-led force, has been deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina for some time. I am pleased to say that its strength has been increased from 600 to 1,100, but that increase is woefully inadequate given the scale of the crisis that is unfolding.
I am pleased that the British Government have appointed Sir Stuart Peach as special envoy to the western Balkans. Sir Stuart is a former chairman of the NATO military committee and UK Chief of the Defence Staff, and I am sure he is already making a difference, even though his appointment is relatively recent. Not only is he demonstrating Britain’s commitment to maintaining peace in the region, but he is helping to address some of the more important issues that have to be confronted if long-term stability is to be achieved in the region.
His task is enormous, not least because there can be little doubt that Dodik is now very close to President Putin. Dodik and Putin met in Moscow in December, and Russia has refused to endorse international statements that have expressed concern at Dodik’s actions. Dodik has also stated that if the European Union were to impose sanctions, Republika Srpska would declare itself an independent state. The situation is extremely serious and demands our attention.
I have focused on the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but we should also be concerned about the developments in North Macedonia, Serbia itself, Kosova and Montenegro. I do not have time to go through all of those situations, so I will simply refer to the situation in Kosova. Since the NATO intervention in 1999, there has been acute tension between Kosovans and Serbians, and between Kosova and Serbia itself. It is particularly worrying that Putin has cited NATO’s intervention in Kosova in 1999 as some kind of justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That is absurd and should be absolutely rejected.
As the hon. Member may be aware, I and other members of the Select Committee on International Development visited Bosnia only last month and discussed the situation with parliamentarians there. Does he share my concerns about any future aggression from President Putin in the region, and will he press the Minister on what steps this Government are taking to safeguard the security of the Balkans in the light of the current geopolitical crisis?
Absolutely. As I move towards my conclusion, that is precisely the point I want to emphasise, because our Government have to do more than they have already done.
Earlier this month, the Kosovan Prime Minister visited London and warned of Russian influence over Serbia. He warned that, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) suggested, there could be a proxy war in the western Balkans. He made particular reference to tensions that erupted in Kosova in the border area with Serbia only last year. There was a seemingly insignificant dispute over what number plates should be displayed on cross-border journeys, but one thing led to another and Kosovan special forces were deployed to the border area. That was followed by the deployment of Serb military jets and tanks. That clearly highlighted how tensions are simmering below the surface and do not take a lot to boil up. That demands our attention to the situation.
To be honest, over the past few years the United Kingdom and other western countries have not given the western Balkans the attention that they deserve. I am pleased to say that is changing, but change must happen more radically and quickly. The UK has given logistical support to EUFOR but needs to do much more. We must consider allocating our own forces to strengthen EUFOR, possibly even deploying forces ourselves in a peacekeeping role. That option should be carefully examined by our Government.
We also need to work more closely with our European allies, to ensure that there is a co-ordinated and sustained diplomatic and economic strategy in place. It is all too easy for us to say, “Well, we have left the European Union. We are not going to be so engaged with these issues.” That is a profound mistake. Brexit is one thing, but it does not remove the need—it is greater than ever—for us to have foreign policy and military co-operation with our European allies. The situation in the western Balkans highlights that dramatically.
We need diplomatic initiatives with all our European partners, because it is clear that the Russians like to play off one country against another. If there is any fracture in solidarity among western nations, we see the Russians play on that. We must ensure that, wherever humanly possible, Britain, its western European allies and the United States speak with one coherent and concerted voice. That must be a diplomatic priority.
We also need to look at what economic tools are available. We are all aware of the situation in Ukraine and how the British Government have gradually increased the deployment of sanctions. We also need to look carefully at the situation in the western Balkans but, again, we must do that in concert with our European allies.
Those are the points I make in conclusion. It is important that we do not see this as a party issue that divides us. We must find common ground and work together to give solidarity to Bosnia and Herzegovina at this crucial time.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for setting the scene with expertise, knowledge and a deep interest. I know he intends to retire at the end of this Parliament and we shall miss him; his contributions are always significant and helpful, due to his years of experience, for which I thank him. I also thank him for leading today’s debate on such an important issue.
There are so many things happening in the world, and I will talk about Ukraine, as we probably all will. I am ever mindful of the responsibility that the Minister and the Government have on their shoulders. We pray for our Ministers every day, because we think it is really important that our Prime Minister and Government have the wisdom and knowledge that they need when decisions are made. As I mentioned in my intervention, I support the introduction of a no-fly zone. That is my opinion, but I understand the issues and what the implications are. Maybe I see things too simplistically sometimes, but I want to know how we can protect the Ukrainians, because we need to be doing so.
We have heard so much in the media and in this House about the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia. There is not a morning or evening that I do not feel cut to the very core of my heart when I see the things that are happening and feel powerless to physically help people—sometimes it overcomes me. We must focus on the priority to help the Ukrainian people to fight the devastation. However, this debate is about the Balkans, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we must not forget the smaller non-NATO states, which have the potential to be targeted as well. The Minister and others might agree that the fight in Ukraine today is a fight in the Balkans tomorrow. It is a fight in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, and on the doorstep of west Germany and France. Maybe the fight will be on the white cliffs of Dover at some time in the future, so the fight today in Ukraine is a fight to which we have to be physically, mentally and emotionally committed in every way we can.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, concerns have rightly been raised about the impact that it will have on the Balkan states. Historically, Russia has maintained rocky relations with different states in the Balkans, playing politics with them all. The Russians have been friends of some and enemies of others, and then they have changed their minds a few weeks later and entered into different relationships.
The Kosovan President has previously accused Russia of using Serbia to destabilise the Balkan region, and the Kosovan Prime Minister has said that Putin wants the state of Kosovo to fail in order to show that NATO success was temporary. Does the hon. Gentleman perceive there to be a risk to the stability in Kosovo and a need for it to join NATO?
I do think that, because Russia thrives on instability. The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I thank her for her intervention.
Historically, Russia has maintained rocky relations. I also understand that Putin has a very clear relationship with the Bosnian Serbs. There is an Ulsterism that is particularly relevant. Back home, we would say—forgive me if this is rather graphic, but it is the way we see it—that Russia and Serbia suck off the same hind tit. It is very clear what the Ulsterism means: they both think the same, they both feed off the same person, and they both act together. As the hon. Member for Caerphilly said, Russia and Serbia are hand in hand in their aspirations and goals.
Regardless of whether small states such as Kosovo and Montenegro are part of NATO, we have a responsibility to protect their citizens from Russian invasion and violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that, as of 14 March 2022, there have been more than 2,000 civilian deaths as a result of Russia’s military attack. Looking towards Bosnia, we have to consider what could happen in the Balkans in the light of what is happening in Ukraine. A further 1,500 people have been injured in Ukraine, and I am mindful of the picture of a lady being carried on a stretcher after the Russians attacked a hospital in Mariupol. It seems that she and her baby did not make it. It is very obvious that the lady was physically and mentally traumatised. The impact of Russian aggression will be the same in the Balkans if they can get away with it.
Ukraine has been crippled by greed and evil, and we must assume that Putin does not intend to stop at Ukraine; the EU, NATO, the UK and the US must be prepared to respond if the current situation deteriorates. I want to put on the record—something that we do not do often enough, but need to—my thanks to the Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace). I know about some of the battles that he has fought in fulfilling our commitment to supply anti-tank missiles. Incidentally, those missiles are made at Thales in Northern Ireland; we have a talent for many things in Northern Ireland, but we seem to have a special talent for that. The now 4,000 anti-tank weapons are proving to be very effective against Russian tanks and armoured vehicles. So we want the support, and the Secretary of State has done that. I put on record my thanks. He has fought, through the obstacles that civil servants throw up, to help. We are asking today for that same commitment to preserve peace in the Balkans.
We must also employ atrocity prevention tools and policy, especially in the states of Bosnia and Herzegovina where society is full of tension and division. The hon. Member for Caerphilly said he had seen a small thing. It looks like a small thing, but it could very soon become a large thing—a confrontation and a battle over that issue. While we maintain the focus on Ukraine, having wider diplomatic engagement across the Balkan states ensures that we are able to practice mitigation tactics further. Protection Approaches, a charity based in London, has stated that the situation in Ukraine must not limit our capacity to respond appropriately to the risks in the Balkans, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly has outlined. We cannot allow the violence and terrorism to be mirrored in the areas surrounding Ukraine and risk more death and loss of life.
Today I look to my Minister and my Government and ask, where does the responsibility lie in co-ordinating the United Kingdom’s approach to the atrocities and ongoing risks of further potential devastation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and the western Balkans? In addition to this, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania have been added to Russia’s list of “enemy states.” My goodness me, who has Russia not made an enemy of today? They hate the world; they hate their very own people—there is absolutely no end to it. It frustrates me greatly when I think that here is one person—Putin, along with his army—who are pursuing death and destruction; and their plans and their eyes are set on bigger things. They refer to those countries as “enemy states” for aligning themselves with sanctions against Russia, causing direct concern for potential invasion.
Everyone in this House was encouraged by that media lady on Russian TV who took her stand; We are very conscious that she is a person with tremendous courage, and she will be in our thoughts.
We must come to terms with the fact that Putin does not intend to stop. Only a few days ago, a Russian missile was launched, and landed some 10 miles from the Polish border. It is crucial that we pave the way to protect other small states while we can. We have a big job to do; the Minister has an incredibly big job to do; our Government have an incredibly big job to do. We look to them, and support them in their methodologies, moving forward. The talk of war has already been discussed in Bosnia and Herzegovina and they are already at risk of facing a resurgence of secessionist tendencies.
While the protection and refuge of the Ukrainian people must be at the forefront and pinnacle of our efforts, as has been said we must not forget the smaller states, which are also at the hands of Russian terror, destruction and murderous thoughts. I urge the Government and the Minister to have plans in place, should there be a future invasion into the Balkans. I think the hon. Member for Caerphilly was right to set the scene today—I thank him for it. We all know that there are many things in the world to keep an eye on, and the responsibility of our Ministers and our Government is one of overbearing pressure at times. I support our Ministers and our Government in the policies that they are taking forward, although I would like to take them forward a wee bit harder, perhaps—but that is just me talking. Others have a different opinion, and I understand that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—it is always a pleasure to be in a debate with him. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this debate and on his opening speech, which was based on his extensive expertise on the region. He rightly called for additional time to be given to talking about securing and maintaining peace and stability in the Balkans. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments. I am glad that we are able to discuss this subject, and I think there is a lot of unity across the House that we want to see peace maintained in the region; we need to look at other areas affected by the Ukrainian war, including those where there was already a fragile peace before the war.
No one wants to think that there will be war in their area. When I worked as an aid worker in Bosnia, I spoke to many communities. I asked when they thought there would be war in their villages—when they thought they would have to flee. All of them knew it was very near—there were soldiers in the next-door valley—but they never thought it would come to their home, until it did. We see that in Ukraine. We hoped that the conflict would not come to this. We need to look ahead at what could happen in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity, and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was a humanitarian aid worker during the war in Bosnia, living in Belgrade and then in Banja Luka. Four years later, I returned with my baby to head Christian Aid’s Bosnia office, rebuilding villages in north-west Bosnia and supporting the return of refugees. So I knew a bit of what it feels like to live amongst a war in a region—the chaos that ensues and the uprooting of people’s lives—and how long it takes to rebuild afterwards.
This House is united in support for peace, and for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all the states in the region, including Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, I think that unfortunately the Government’s policy on the Balkans could go further and I will focus on three points—Russia, sanctions and civil society.
If any Member here or anyone reading the debate in Hansard thinks that Putin does not have designs on the Balkans as well as Ukraine, they need to think again, and if they think that peace is not very fragile indeed in the Balkan states, especially in the Republika Srpska, they need to think again. The violence in Ukraine makes clear Putin’s intention to fuel instability and division across the whole region. The Balkans is no exception.
The UK still has no atrocity prevention strategy for any of its offices, including those in this region, or as part of its policy towards Ukraine. Such a strategy would mean looking at early warning systems, training civil servants, learning from best practice in other areas, and specifically taking action to prevent atrocities.
The risks have already been increasing, particularly with regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly noted. Six months ago, there was talk of potential war. Piece by piece, Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, is dismantling the Dayton peace treaty. That cannot be allowed to happen. Lines must be drawn.
For years, Dodik has been advocating the separation of Republika Srpska from Bosnia—for it to be part of Serbia. With support from Russia and Serbia, he has recently intensified his secessionist campaign. On 10 February, Republika Srpska lawmakers voted to create a high prosecutorial judicial council, which will have the power to choose its own judges and prosecutors. He is also working on creating a Bosnian Serb army, a separate judiciary and tax system, and is continuing with genocide denial. It cannot be said often enough that there can be no denial of the genocide in Srebrenica. In July 1995, more than 8,000 men and boys were killed in Srebrenica. To deny that it happened, and to fuel nationalist sentiment within the region, is almost an act of war.
The hon. Lady and others in this Chamber will have heard the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) recall in graphic detail some of his experiences of genocide and murder in the Balkans. There is not a time that I do not listen to him and feel incredibly moved. I think the hon. Lady has heard him as well. For those who perhaps have not heard his story—few in the Chamber have not—it will always bring back the cold, brutal reality of what happened, which the hon. Lady is referring to.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that. I have met many of the relatives of those who disappeared that day in Srebrenica, and I have spoken to many who, even years afterwards, hoped that their relative was not there because they had not had the proof, which it was absolutely heartbreaking to know. The reverberation carries on not only with all those directly affected but through the generations. When we say “never again”, we must ensure that it is never again, and that we note the build-up of potential war and conflict and a fragile peace being shattered in the region. We can have no excuse for not seeing it coming. We have no excuse for not taking action to prevent anything like Srebrenica happening again.
The Foreign Secretary said that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office knew Russia was going to invade Ukraine, but made no preparations for the human rights crisis that would follow; and we have seen chaos ensue in the last few weeks. Preparations need to be made in Bosnia now. So I would like to question the Minister today, and hope he will tell us what preparations are being made to ensure that peace is built and created, and that any moves to war are being stopped in the Balkan region.
We are seeing terrible scenes as millions of people leave Ukraine, but it must also be our concern if conflict re-erupts in the Balkans and we also see large numbers of people moving into western Europe from the Balkans. We have to be aware of that and must put in place preparations should that happen. It underlines the fact that we need to do everything possible to stop conflict erupting in the first place.
Absolutely; I thank my hon. Friend for that reflection. Given the history of the region, if someone has already endured conflict and already fled with their family to another region of Bosnia, or to Germany or another country during the war, they might have returned and now be seeing the threat arising again. As they see what is happening in Ukraine, they will think, “Shall I stay? Is it safer to leave?” So we must prepare for that, and for more numbers on top of the huge numbers affected by the Ukraine crisis.
Sanctions is another area where we could take action. A smart and creative sanctions policy for the western Balkans, designed and implemented as soon as possible, would help to mitigate the rising risks, and could be that line in the sand that we can create. We could say to Dodik, as the EU and the US have, “You have already gone too far to undermine Dayton, so we are going to sanction you.” We have not yet said that to Dodik and other members of his regime. Is this the time to say it? What talks are being held? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.
Finally, I want to speak about civil society. If we are to maintain peace and stability in the Balkans—maintaining it is the key issue—strengthening civil society is crucial. The price of eternal peace is not just eternal vigilance but eternal peacebuilding. Dodik does not have the massive support among the Serbs in Bosnia that he likes to appear as though he has. There is an opportunity to support moderate voices on all sides who want to see peace in their country and community, including those from civil society. It is important to remember that genocide and crimes against humanity are usually well planned and organised. They are preceded by a polarisation of views and caused by a manipulation of public fears and grievances, and sometimes even deliberate and targeted attacks on moderates, political and civil society leaders and freedom of the press. All of the signs are there and can be watched over.
It is hard to overstate the importance of civil society in winning over hearts and minds for peace in such situations. There are abundant examples in conflict settings, through investment in social cohesion and peace education work. Around the world, we can see in South Sudan and the Central African Republic that community-based prevention work has led to young people handing in their weapons and working together across identity groups. Mothers are setting up groups to say, “No more war in our society. We want to see peace.”
I want to pay tribute to two inspiring women from Republika Srpska who I recently met and spoke to online, who have been doing magnificent work in this regard. The first is Velma Šarić, who is an investigative reporter, researcher, academic and peacebuilder. She is the founder and CEO of the Sarajevo-based Post-Conflict Research Centre, which was established in 2010. She lived under siege at the start of the war, and she told me about all the peacebuilding work that that organisation is doing. The second is Tatjana Milovanović. She has been a peacebuilder in Bosnia for 10 years and is now a programme director at the Post-Conflict Research Centre. There are peacebuilders. We can work with them and support them, and that should be a crucial intervention by the British Government, the British people and Members of Parliament.
I say to the Minister: can we have an atrocity prevention strategy for our teams in the region? What work are we doing to actively support civil society? We cannot take peace and stability in the Balkans for granted—none of us in this room do. We need to have these conversations much more widely, and I hope the FCDO does as well. As someone who has lived in the region during its darkest days, I have seen how quickly hate and polarisation can infect people’s hearts and minds and turn a peaceful, multi-ethnic integrated society into an extremely divided one, where one side is actually shooting into the town they were living in. Personally, I feel this is the closest that peace has ever been to unravelling in the region. The UK has a very important role to play in ensuring that it does not. Let us act now before it is too late.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for securing this vital and timely debate. I also thank the eloquent speakers who have contributed to the debate for their experience and insight into the Western Balkans. Next month the world will mark the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Balkan war—a war that resulted in up to 100,000 people being killed, caused 2 million people to be displaced and saw, horrifically, the first genocide in Europe in 1995 since the second world war, where over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica by Serb forces.
I too have memories of that time, not because I was in Bosnia, but because I was living in the Netherlands. I lived with a community of refugees who came from each of the six states of the former Yugoslavia, who were all fleeing for the same reason: because on the ground it was unbearable to live. Neighbours were fighting with neighbours, and family members were fighting with each other. They saw horrific consequences, so this subject touches me.
It is a great tragedy that, as we speak here today, there is war in Europe once again. Images of Russia’s brutal, bloody and barbaric invasion of Ukraine, with the systematic targeting of civilians and public infrastructure, have been incredibly distressing to see. The suffering of innocent people, including pregnant women, children and newborn infants, must never be normalised or accepted. Our urgent and completely justified focus on the war in Ukraine must not distract our attention from other conflict areas of concern in Europe, and we must not lose sight of the precarious political climate in the Balkans.
Just three days before Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the EU Foreign Ministers had to meet to discuss crisis-averting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell commenting:
“The nationalist and separatist rhetoric is increasing…and jeopardising the stability and even the integrity of the country”.
In November, the international community’s High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, warned that the country is in imminent danger of breaking apart and there is a “very real” prospect of a return to conflict. The Dayton accords, which brought the Bosnian war to an end in 1995 and created a complex political system for Bosnia and Herzegovina to manage ethnic tensions, are being undermined. That poses a huge danger to the stability of the region.
As we heard, threats by the Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, to boycott the country’s major institutions—including the armed forces, top judiciary body and tax administration, to be replaced by several new bodies—and secede the Republika Srpska, are a clear violation of the peace accords. The fact that that was in response to an announcement, by a former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, that anyone who denied that genocide or war crimes had been committed during the 1990s would face jail time, is huge cause for concern.
Yet, despite increasing tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina since summer 2021, the UK Government have been slow to respond. That is indeed alarming. The Magnitsky sanctions are a powerful tool in the UK’s diplomatic arsenal, but the Government’s web- page devoted to UK sanctions relating to Bosnia and Herzegovina has not been updated since December 2020. The US Treasury sanctioned Dodik for significant corruption and destabilising activities in January of this year, and a leaked internal document from the EU has recommended that sanctions are imposed on Republika Srpska and that financial support is withheld, if the crisis continues in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Moving on to some questions, will the Minister commit to increasing the Magnitsky sanctions regime against hostile actors within Bosnia and Herzegovina? If so, will the UK Government commit to making those decisions through scrupulous discussions with international allies? As with the war in Ukraine, it is vital that we maintain close alignment with the EU on matters of European security, as has already been suggested here today.
We also cannot ignore the malevolent role of Russia in fuelling the instability in the Balkans. It has been argued that Vladimir Putin considers NATO intervention in Kosovo a most important recent international event, and wants the state to fail to show that NATO success was temporary, as it was in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia has not recognised Kosovo’s independence and has blocked it from joining the United Nations.
Russia has allied itself with Serbia on this issue, and has been accused of using Serbia to destabilise the region. Although Serbia has declared support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and voted in favour of the UN resolution condemning Russia’s actions, it has not aligned itself with EU sanctions against Russia.
Given that context, it is not surprising that there have been reports that Milorad Dodik tried to prevent Bosnian officials from voting to condemn Russia’s actions at the UN. It has been alleged that Dodik sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General, through the Russian mission, stating that the Bosnian UN ambassador should not vote, as the Bosnian presidency had not agreed a joint stance on the matter.
There is evidence of Russian interference in the Balkans from the recent past, when it condemned Montenegro’s accession to NATO. I should also point to news reports yesterday that the Russian-backed parliamentarians in Montenegro are pushing for advance elections to try to turn their minority into a majority in Parliament, so that it can leave NATO. Two pro-Russian politicians and nine Serbs were subsequently sentenced for staging that coup, with two alleged Russian agents tried in absentia.
Balkan leaders have made stark warnings. Šefik Džaferović—I hope I have pronounced that correctly—the Bosniak member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s presidency, said,
“Dodik is trying to take advantage of the fact that the attention of the west is focused on Ukraine”.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, added,
“I fear that the longer the war lasts in Ukraine, the greater the chances of spillover in the western Balkans. And that is because it is in the interest of the Russian Federation to have new battlegrounds.”
We need to heed those warnings, as any proxy ethno-nationalist war in the Balkans would be devastating, as history has shown us repeatedly.
The Minister for Europe and North America has previously said,
“we see the hand of Russia at play here”.—[Official Report, 9 November 2021; Vol. 703, c. 178.]
If that is the case, we need to know what the FCDO is doing about it. What assessment have the UK Government, along with our EU and North American allies, made of that influence, and how has that changed since the invasion of Ukraine? Do we have a strategy for a proxy conflict scenario erupting? Are the UK Government actively investigating Kremlin-linked entities in the UK contributing to political destabilisation in the Balkans? Will there be a broader sanctions package to sanction Russian individuals promoting or enabling conflict in any part of Europe?
A return to violence is not inevitable but the warning signs must be responded to. For years, voices in civil society and Select Committees of this House have called for a cross-governmental atrocity prevention strategy, yet it still does not exist. The integrated review promised that this would be prioritised, yet in December the UK Atrocity Prevention Working Group wrote to the Prime Minister, voicing concerns that the UK systems capabilities and policies toward Bosnia and Herzegovina still lack a focus on atrocity prevention, grievance and political marginalisation.
Protection Approaches has stated:
“Bosnia is the test case of the promise made in the Prime Minister’s Integrated Review to prioritise atrocity prevention. The UK is well placed to lead a coalition of Bosnia’s allies in a coordinated preventative effort and fulfil its promise made.”
Where do the responsibilities lie for articulating and co-ordinating the UK Government’s approach to the atrocities, and the ongoing risk of further atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the western Balkans? How is the UK mapping the motivations and interrelations of potential perpetrators and the coalitions that can help to prevent violence? Do the embassies in Sarajevo, Pristina and Belgrade have emergency communications protocols in place? When will the UK publish a national atrocity prevention strategy?
I recommend that those responsible for answers to those questions read the book “Architectures of Violence” by Dr Kate Ferguson. It was published just a few months ago, and shows that when these acts of mass atrocities happen, it is systematic and calculated, not spontaneous. It is also preventable. It is clear that we still do not yet have a strategy mapped out.
Finally, I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina last month with the International Development Committee. I returned last night from a visit to Derry, where I was joined by a Bosnian delegation. The Bosnians I met were shocked and surprised that we actually have our own challenges and tensions within these islands. The message was clear that peace and security is only achievable with those on the ground working in partnership, and putting in the hard work and steely determination to resolve the issues. I pay tribute to all the women and men on the ground at grassroots level who work hard to build peace and solidarity across the divides in their communities, often risking their own security in the process. Without them, we have no peace and security.
I also pay tribute to all those in British embassies working in partnership with local NGOs and volunteers to strengthen peace and security in the western Balkans. I pay tribute to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which through its fellowship programmes has created opportunities for people from the western Balkans to see for themselves the hard-won victories that have built peace on our own islands. We have a duty and responsibility in our own national interest and security to work for and invest in peace and security in partnership across the western Balkans for now and into the future.
Conflict and instability are neither innate nor inevitable. Equally, peace and security are not easy—there is no quick fix and they do not grab headlines—but one thing is for sure: failure to invest will come back and bite us all badly. The world’s eyes are quite rightly on Ukraine right now, but this war has been going on for eight years, not the three weeks that the media and UK Government keep repeating. There is an invaluable lesson in this: prevention is far better than a cure, and the early signs need to be acted on coherently, strategically and, most importantly, continuously. The alternative is unconscionable.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Bone, and to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing it. There have been powerful speeches, largely based on hon. Members’ personal experiences. It is particularly a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who gave a passionate speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly is right to highlight the worries we should all have about events beyond the terrible situation in Ukraine, whether that is in the Baltics, Moldova or the western Balkans. Many of us have been asking the FCDO questions, and I raised them with the Minister the other day. It is crucial that while our attention is rightly focused on what is happening with the atrocities in Ukraine, we do not ignore or fail to recognise the very serious risk that events elsewhere in our own continent could descend into chaos, violence and conflict.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly spoke powerfully of his own experiences in the Balkans. The horrors of the 1990s are seared into the minds of many people across this country, including many British servicepeople who honourably and bravely served in many stabilisation missions across the continent, such as those involved in the operations in Kosovo and elsewhere. Indeed, members of my own family served in operations in Bosnia and there are Members of the House who served in a military capacity and in humanitarian organisations; my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and others loom large among those with such experiences. The right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) is not with us today, but he has spoken to me personally and very powerfully on many occasions about his own experiences during his time with the United Nations in Bosnia.
The current risks are indeed huge. The High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina wrote last November that Bosnia is facing
“the greatest existential threat of the post-war period.”
Of course, the invasion of Ukraine and the events emanating from that have only heightened the risks for Bosnia.
Much has been said in this debate about the threats and machinations of Dodik. Of course, he has threatened to follow the Russian example; many fear that he seeks to break Republika Srpska away from the settlement that has endured for decades now in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We know that he has the support of, and close links to, the Kremlin. By his own admission, he also apparently has links to China. I hope that the Minister will say in his remarks what he makes of the serious allegations about weapons supplies supposedly coming through to the Republika Srpska, the close ties to the Kremlin and the allegations of links to China. What discussions he has had with international counterparts about those issues?
It is correct that much of the focus this morning is on Russia, but we should not forget that, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, China has a malign role in much of this as well. We need to take note of that, because Chinese influence is growing, as is the use of their resources, in a number of the Balkan states, particularly Serbia.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, we have seen Chinese influence across other areas in which Russia seeks to cause instability. For example, we know of the Chinese influence in the Baltics and elsewhere. It is crucial that we take full account of that and have strategies to respond.
Quite rightly, there have been many questions about sanctions. I know that the Minister will not want to get drawn into the detail either of existing sanctions or of others that have not yet been proposed, but it is important to note—this point has been made strongly—that there have been sanctions from the US. I hope that the Minister can say something about the apparent differences in the approach, particularly given the steps that have already been taken, very publicly and vocally, by Dodik and others to undermine the Dayton agreement.
Beyond Bosnia, we cannot forget the situation in the other countries in the western Balkans, particularly given the alleged Russian-sponsored coup in Montenegro in 2016. Of course, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia have followed the EU and others in sanctioning Russia over the situation in Ukraine. It is welcome that we see that unity of purpose and the position that they have taken—boldly and bravely, given the risks that they face. I hope that the Minister will tell us how we will support them as they seek to respond to attempts by Russia to undermine their politics and societies. They have now been designated as enemy states by Putin and Russia. We need to recognise the inherent risks for them. It would be good to hear what the Minister has to say about that, and when he last met representatives of those countries in particular, not least given the domestic political goings-on that the hon. Member for Dundee West raised in relation to Montenegro and the risks to its domestic politics.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly and others quite rightly highlighted that there cannot be any justifiable attempt to deny the Srebrenica massacre or the many other atrocities that took place in Balkans in the past. Those who seek to do so are simply speaking outwith the overwhelming facts. Many of us who have worked closely with Remembering Srebrenica and other organisations in the past, and declare our interests in relation to our associations with that organisation, know the reality of what happened in those terrible days in the 1990s—of course, not just in Srebrenica, but in many other places.
I absolutely agree with the points that my hon. Friend made about the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the risks posed by those who seek to undermine it, and the importance of the role that EUFOR is playing, and I join him in commending the appointment of Sir Stuart Peach.
One point that came out quite strongly in a number of contributions was that although we may no longer be a member of the European Union, we remain one of the crucial guarantors, with a key role to play in this situation. Therefore, we need to work closely with the EU and the other guarantors to ensure we have a coherent and joined- up approach to what is an increasingly worrying situation.
A couple of weeks ago, I met with Miroslav Lajčák, the EU special representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, formerly the Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, and EU special representative and High Representative to Bosnia. We discussed the crucial role that the UK plays, working alongside him and other representatives, including the current international High Representative. The EU special representative is working to achieve the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, and to improve relations and reconciliation between partners across the western Balkans as well as in that specific situation.
Could the Minister say when he last met with the EU special representative, and how he sees us working closely together over these difficult months? I completely agree with the points that have been made; we need to speak with one coherent voice. In that regard, could the Minister also tell us about his recent discussions with the High Representative, Christian Schmidt, and where the Government see the relationship between all those different, interlocking parts going in the months and weeks ahead?
As always, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a very strong speech containing some powerful points. He was absolutely right to highlight, as many have, the concerning links between many in Serbian politics and Russia. In recent weeks, we have seen some deeply worrying scenes of Russian flags being waved in the streets of Belgrade. Are attempts being made there to whip up even more of a fervour in the current, very difficult times?
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney spoke from her immense personal experience of, and dedication to, the people of the region, which I commend her on. She was right to give similarly stark warnings about Russia’s involvement in undermining this situation, and to raise the case for an atrocity prevention strategy, as did the hon. Member for Dundee West. I welcome those calls and hope the Minister can say what the Government are actually doing. They do not seem to have moved forward on this issue, but it is critical, not just in the Balkans, but in so many other situations globally.
I could not agree more with the points that my hon. Friend also made about peacebuilding and civil society. It is the people in the western Balkans—people who have been through a great deal over recent decades—who could be the foundations for peace and, crucially, provide resilience against the forces who would attempt to break apart their country or return it once again to chaos and conflict. I hope that the Minister can set out what the FCDO is doing to fund those projects.
As we have said many times in multiple debates in this place, the Government’s cutting of the aid commitment from 0.7% to 0.5% has undoubtedly had an impact on many different programmes, some of which were funded under these measures. I would like the Minister to explain what the FCDO is doing to fund peacebuilding and civil society strengthening programmes. Such programmes could provide a crucial bulwark against the forces I have referred to—Dodik, Putin or others—who seek to undermine these countries and regions and take them back to very dark times.
Lastly, the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Dundee West, was absolutely right to highlight how the Dayton settlement was being undermined, the domestic political events in Montenegro, and the need to make progress on the atrocity prevention strategy.
At the moment, the focus is rightly on Ukraine. We will be having further events on Ukraine—we had an important debate on it yesterday—but as the Minister will know from his extensive military experience, at times like these we also have to watch the flanks and the rear. We have to watch what is happening elsewhere, and we all know that the warning signs in the western Balkans were there well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
We have a particular duty and responsibility, not only because of our extensive involvement in the 1990s, but as one of the key guarantors in the region. It is crucial that we play that role to the utmost at this time—that we have resources in the FCDO attuned to the western Balkans and ministerial time attached to this region, and that we are making those contacts, having those conversations and funding those projects. We need to make sure that we do not end up in an even worse situation in the weeks and months to come, which we would deeply regret and, most importantly, would have devastating impacts on the people of the western Balkans. We have a critical role to play and we must continue to play it.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Bone, and I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), my former Labour Front-Bench shadow, for initiating the debate. As we have heard, recent developments demand our attention, and they demand our action. He is right to use the debate to bring those issues to the attention of the Chamber.
Unresolved tensions in the Balkans serve only to embolden those who seek to foster division and hamper progress. The UK is leading efforts to counter destabilising activities, especially from Russia. Putin is no friend to these countries—not a friend to the people of the Balkans, not a friend to the Slavic brethren and not even a friend to the people of Russia itself.
Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine is casting a dark shadow across Europe, and across the Balkans in particular, and we are seeing the full breadth of Russian tactics: violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity, brazen breaches of international law, and devastating attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. The UK has been at the forefront of political and diplomatic efforts to stop this. We highlight and criticise Moscow for its actions on the international stage. We expose its untruths. We seek with partners to deter Russia from going further. We are building international resolve on sanctions, and supporting Ukraine with £394 million of aid, both humanitarian and other, plus military equipment and the training that we provided for the Ukrainian armed forces for many years through Operation Orbital.
The tragic situation in Ukraine underlines the need to pay close attention to the Balkans, which is the point made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly and others. That tragic situation is not unfamiliar. There are those in the Balkans who know only too well the horrors of war, and Putin’s aggression has given the Balkans deep and genuine cause for concern. That has, unsurprisingly, generated huge passion, as we have seen today, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) for her direct, first-hand experience in Bosnia during and immediately after the most difficult period in that country’s recent history.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is beautifully elegant in his self-deprecating way, but he sees with clarity and speaks with passion, and he is universally respected across the House for that. He calls on us all to do more and go further. I assure him that we will always look at what options are available to us to help the people of Ukraine and to help prevent the atrocities that everyone in the Chamber has highlighted as a concern.
We of course support Bosnia and Herzegovina in its territorial integrity. I assure the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) that the UK has been robust in its condemnation of the dangerous moves led by presidency member Milorad Dodik, and we will not be passive in our response. Dodik’s attempts to withdraw unilaterally from state institutions, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted, threaten to undo 26 years of hard-won peace and stability. Dodik is supported by Putin, so we will continue to work in close co-ordination with our partners and allies in our response. I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I do not go into further details on what that might look like.
EUFOR, the peace stabilisation force, has increased its presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure that it is mobile and visible right across the country. We work hard to prevent Russia from closing it. EUFOR has a remit across the whole country, which it must continue to fulfil, from north to south, east to west. The UK also supports NATO headquarters in Sarajevo with personnel, and we are calling on allies to send more. We will give practical support to the armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time, we are promoting progress—
I want to press the Minister slightly on that point. I hear what he says about giving practical support to EUFOR, but will he give any commitment at least to looking at the possibility of British soldiers going there to stabilise the situation, in partnership with others?
I hear the points made by the hon. Gentleman. Obviously, our formal membership of EUFOR stopped with our departure from the European Union, but that should not be read in any way as a downgrading of our support for peace and stability in this region. We will, of course, look at further ways we can act to support the international community, in what should be—I believe it is—the aim of us all in this House and across the continent, to prevent the region slipping backwards into the bloodshed and violence we saw sadly in the recent past.
We will continue to promote progress towards normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo to that end. We strongly support the EU’s role in facilitating the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. The Government in Kosovo has a strong electoral mandate, and elections are fast approaching in Serbia. The opportunity to reach an agreement is there to be grasped, and we must help both countries to seize it. A deal would be transformative, not only for them but for the entire region’s security and prosperity.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly spoke about the UK working with our European allies. I can tell him and the hon. Member for Cardiff West—
Sorry; I mean the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty)—my knowledge of Cardiff geography is not as strong as it should be, lovely city though it is—who asked about our liaison with representatives of European institutions. I had an excellent meeting last week with Miroslav Lajčák, the EU special representative for the dialogue. He rightly said at the time:
“Standing up for our shared goals and values in the western Balkans and elsewhere is now more important than ever.”
I had the privilege of meeting heads of Government from western Balkan states when the Prime Minister hosted them recently on their visits to the UK. The UK will, of course, continue to support reforms to promote peace and stability, freedom and democracy across the Balkans. Our embassy in Sarajevo supports programmes that promote security and citizen-centred reforms.
We have seen divisive and inflammatory rhetoric from Russia and some others in the region, and we wholeheartedly condemn it. The dangers of ethno-nationalist language are clear, as are concerns across the region at moves by proponents of a Serbian world approach. Reconciliation and positive relations between neighbours are essential. Through our work and engagement, we support that across the Balkans.
When I visited Bulgaria last week, I welcomed its Government’s commitment to improving their relationship with North Macedonia. Romania has mobilised as a NATO ally against Putin’s aggression. I applaud the warm welcome and support it has offered to those poor people fleeing the war in Ukraine.
As part to the Dayton agreement, Croatia plays an important role in maintaining peace and stability. We are also grateful to Slovenia for its long-standing support for peace, as demonstrated during its recent EU presidency. Sir Stuart Peach has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, and I am very pleased that he has been appointed the special envoy to the western Balkans. With his characteristic alacrity, he has already visited all the countries in the region since his appointment in December last year. I had the opportunity to meet him when the heads of Government for the western Balkans visited the UK. I have no doubt we will continue to liaise closely as the Minister and envoy, respectively. He recently discussed the dialogues with political leaders in Serbia and Kosovo. He is maintaining close contacts with our partners in the US and in Europe as we work together to pursue an agreement.
It is essential to ensure the security and defence of all our allies that we continue to work in close co-ordination. What happens in the Balkans affects the whole of Europe. We have a long-standing interest in the security of the region, and we will continue to work to protect that. We will do so by contributing to peace support operations, strengthening democratic institutions, combating organised crime and corruption and promoting international justice. That includes UK personnel supporting KFOR, the Kosovo Force. Our UK military training hub is active in North Macedonia for the whole region. From April, we will finance a new international security program to boost resilience across the western Balkans to defend against cyber-attacks and disinformation.
Economic opportunities also play a crucial role in supporting stability. Co-operation and trade are increasing between the UK and the whole region, and that benefits us and the region enormously. They will help to create jobs, improve quality of life and reduce emigration and the loss of talent that, sadly, a number of countries in the region have experienced. We are building on the partnership trade and co-operation and agreement that we signed with Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia. Energy diversification will improve the region’s energy security, help to deliver on our climate objectives and help to provide liberation from a reliance on Russian gas supplies. We have quadrupled the UK’s export finance availability to the region to support that.
Politically and diplomatically, the UK remains at the forefront of efforts to stop destabilising activities in the Balkans, especially those supported by Russia. We are working hand in hand with partners in the region and our allies more broadly.
On that point, some have suggested that Turkey has a crucial role to play in the area. Turkey is well respected by Bosniak Muslims, for example, but it also has significant investments in Serbia and Republika Srpska. Turkey might therefore be well placed to play a significant role in helping to stabilise the situation. I wondered if the Minister has any views on that opinion.
Turkey is a significant country in the near neighbourhood of the western Balkans. It is a NATO ally. I enjoy a good relationship with my opposite number in the Turkish Government, and I have a call scheduled with him in the near future. I have no doubt that maintaining the stability in the western Balkans will be one of the things that we discuss. We will continue to work hand in hand with our partners and allies to promote and maintain peace, security and prosperity for the people of the western Balkans.
This has been an important debate. We are all focused on the terrible situation in Ukraine, but I think it is also extremely important that we cast our minds towards developments closer to home. I hope this very important debate will not be a one-off but will lead to others on the Floor of the House. It is important that we maintain the dialogue that exists among Members of all parties to ensure that this Parliament speaks with one strong voice.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the maintenance of peace and stability in the Balkans.