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Bosnia’s Republika Srpska Showcases New Military Hardware at Statehood Day Parade
The Republika Srpska (RS) entity of Bosnia Herzegovina staged its annual ‘statehood day’ on January 9th. This year the parade took place in the Istočno neighbourhood of Sarajevo, which represents a major escalation in the posturing of the Bosnian Serb entity, which has previously hosted the event in their regional capital of Banja Luka, in the north of the country. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb president, has increased his secessionist rhetoric in recent months, which has seen him emboldened by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and supported by Vladimir Putin.
(Preparations for the statehood day parade in Sarajevo Istočno.)
Dodik, who was awarded the highest medal of honour by Putin just days before the parade, and who is also sanctioned by the United States, has increased the size of the RS paramilitary forces in recent years. For observers of the security situation in the Western Balkans, the annual statehood day parade offered a unique view into the arsenal of the Bosnian Serbs’ armed forces.
Along with setting up a new Gendarmerie force as part of the Interior Ministry, RS has also invested in modern small arms, as well as armoured vehicles and helicopters. Concerns have been raised over whether this is a purely defensive force, as Bosnian Serb authorities have claimed, or whether it is intended for future offensive operations.
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The Gendarmerie was formed in 2019 by presidential decree from Milorad Dodik. At a ceremony to unveil the new unit, he stated: “We are ready to face all challenges that may potentially come from any side, such as a threat to the constitutional structure or security of any of our citizens.”
The Gendarmerie is equipped with some of the best weaponry in the arsenal of the RS. At the statehood day parade in January, they were seen armed with a mixture of Serbian-manufactured Zastava 5.56mm M21 rifles and Taurus 9mm Ct9 carbines.
(Interior Ministry troops on parade)
The overall size of the police and security forces in the RS is somewhere in the region of 7,000 – 8,000 personnel. The Gendarmerie itself has roughly 800 uniformed officers. There have been plans to create a second “reserve” force to raise this number further, which was intended to comprise 20% of the total current number of police and security forces, but intervention from the EU has prevented its creation. In contrast, there are only 1,100 members of the EUFOR peacekeeping contingent in Bosnia Herzegovina, after the number of EU troops was boosted in 2022.
As an internal security force, the RS’s paramilitary units are currently lightly equipped and mostly focused on counter-terror operations. Despite this, there have been recent moves to acquire a broader selection of equipment. In April 2021 a request was made to purchase heavy weapon systems from South Africa, a 12.7mm Reutech Rogue LITE weapon system, capable of being mounted on vehicles, such as the locally produced Despot MRAP-style armoured vehicle, currently in operation by RS security forces.
The Despot is manufactured by local company Tehnički Remont Bratunac (TRB) and is one of several types of armoured vehicles operated by the Ministry of the Interior. It has a max weight of 14 tons and can accommodate 9 people and a load of more than 3 tons. Alongside the Despot, TRB has presented the Vihor in 2022, a lighter model of armoured vehicle—some of which were seen at the parade in January.
(BOV armoured vehicles on the streets of Sarajevo.)
Notably, the RS also operates a small group of helicopters, which are crucial for modern security forces and the Interior Ministry operates several Kazan Ansat helicopters. These Russian-manufactured helicopters are, like the rest of the RS’s equipment, light and versatile and can be configured in multiple offensive, recon or logistical variants. The first aircraft was delivered in 2020 and the helicopters, along with other weaponry were showcased at so-called ‘anti-terror’ exercises on Mount Jahorina, near Sarajevo, in 2021.
(RS security forces undertake training on Mount Jahorina.)
The range of equipment in the Republika Srpska’s arsenal and their acquisition of new material has increased in recent years. Along with the rhetoric from Milorad Dodik, it is a cause of great anxiety for the region. It remains to be seen if it will be put to use in an offensive capacity but international observers and groups within Bosnia remain greatly concerned.