The Republic of Srpska plays the Russian energy card, bypasses central Bosnian government

Bosnian Serb government signs deal on direct gas supplies by Gazprom, Sarajevo not given a say · The Republic of Srpska has the right to sign international agreements, needs approval by Bosnian authorities · Dodik says Russia stands behind Bosnian Serb self-government · The decision is linked to the debate over gas pipelines supplying Europe

The government of the Republic of Srpska is little by little building its own independent energy policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The most recent chapter of this is an agreement the Bosnian Serbs and Gazprom have just signed: the Russian company will supply the Republic of Srpska with gas imports starting from the summer of 2015. Gas will be shipped through Serbian company Gas Res -which in turn has reached its own deal with Gazprom- until the South Stream gas pipeline is completed. Russian gas will then directly reach the Republic of Srpska through a spur hailing from the main South Stream pipeline in neighbouring Serbia.

The Serbian-majority Republic of Srpska is one of two federal entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It has its own parliament and government, as the other entity in the country, the Bosniak- and Croat-majority Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has. This federal system was agreed in Dayton in 1995 in order to put an end to the Bosnian war.

The South Stream pipeline is a Gazprom-led project, with participation of Italian ENI, French EDF and German Wintershall companies. It is devised to transport natural gas from southern Russia to Austria through Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary (see map, click on it to enlarge) while avoiding turbulent Ukraine. Currently 16% of gas consumed in Europe flows via Ukraine.

The European Commission has forced Bulgaria to stop South Stream works on the grounds that the project violates EU competition laws. The Commission further argues that South Stream is not a "priority." According to EU energy commissioner spokeswoman Marlene Holzner, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline -an alternative pipeline to South Stream that would transport Caspian gas to Italy via Turkey and Greece- would have a larger impact. But several European countries, including Italy and Austria, want South Stream to be completed anyway.

According to Bosnian law, the Republic of Srpska has the right to sign international agreements on energy. Bosnia's central government has in the past complained that it has not been briefed by the authorities of Banja Luka about Bosnian Serb policies on the matter. The Republic of Srpska must in theory seek Sarajevo's approval for its decisions, but in practice the Bosnian Serb government behaves like a semi-independent country.

Republic of Srpska President Milorad Dodik said he will seek approval by the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina for his Gazprom agreement. Dodik however warned that if the deal is blocked in Sarajevo, Republika Srpska should mull over "why we need that Parliament and those structures."

Under the shadow of Russia

The Russian-Bosnian Serb deal was signed during a recent official visit by Dodik to Moscow. Dodik said Russia is the guarantor of Bosnian Serb self-government and its privileged trade and donor partner: Bosnian Serb television reported that a Russian bank is preparing to donate half a million euros in order to renovate a hospital in Samac.

The EU has been for years pushing for a simplification of Bosnia's multi-layered government system. The Bosnian Serb government believes that the EU only wants to impose a centralized model that eliminates, or at least limits, the Republic of Srpska's autonomy. The Kremlin however argues that the Dayton model should not be changed.

Dodik has repeatedly warned that he will call a referendum on independence if Bosnia and Herzegovina modifies the current federal system. Opinion polls show a "yes" vote would get a very large majority.

(Image: pipelines carrying Russian gas to Europe / map by Samuel Bailey.)