Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb separatist leader, has awarded Russian President Vladimir Putin in absentia with the highest medal of honour for his “patriotic concern and love” for the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Putin is responsible for developing and strengthening cooperation and political and friendly relations between RS [Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia] and Russia,” Dodik said at an awards ceremony on Sunday in the Serb-majority city of Banja Luka.
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Dodik, who visited Putin in September in Moscow, has maintained close ties with the Russian president despite Russia’s war in Ukraine.
He praised Putin for Russia’s support of Republika Srpska and said he would present the medal to him at their next meeting.
“Thanks to the position of Vladimir Putin and the strength of the Russian Federation, the voice and position of Republika Srpska has been heard and respected,” he said.
Moscow has often been accused by the West of seeking to destabilise Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans through its proxies in Serbia and Bosnia.
Dodik has openly advocated tearing away Republika Srpska to join it up with neighbouring Serbia.
Russian envoys have supported him in his secessionist moves aimed at weakening the central government.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Dodik tried to block efforts of the tripartite presidency for Bosnia to join European Union sanctions against Moscow.
Last month, Russia denounced the EU for granting Bosnia candidate status to join the bloc. The Kremlin earlier warned that it would consider Bosnia’s moves towards joining NATO as a “hostile act”.
A US-brokered peace deal in 1995 ended the war in Bosnia that killed at least 100,000 people and made millions homeless, but left the country deeply divided between its three main ethnic groups.
Dodik awarded Putin on the occasion of “Republika Srpska Day”, which is deemed illegal by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court.
January 9 marks when Bosnian Serbs proclaimed they were splitting from Bosnia in 1992, with the aim of separating the Serb-populated regions of the Balkan state and joining them up with Serbia.
Tensions were running high in Bosnia as the Serbs planned to hold their main celebrations on the outskirts of Sarajevo on Monday, the town they held under siege for three years during the war.
Thousands of people were killed in the relentless shelling and sniping of the Bosnian capital.