- Associated Press - Friday, September 21, 2018

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) - Russia won’t interfere in next month’s elections in Bosnia, an ethnically-divided Balkan nation where Moscow maintains strong influence among the country’s Serbs, Russia’s foreign minister insisted Friday.

Sergey Lavrov said after talks with officials in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, that Russia will respect the outcome in the Oct. 7 general election and won’t be backing any party.

Analysts have warned that Lavrov’s visit ahead of the vote could be seen as support for the nationalist Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik, an ally of Moscow.

“We will always respect the Bosnian people’s choice and will work with anyone they elect,” Lavrov insisted. “We never give advice to other countries’ people as to whom they should vote for.”

Lavrov also called for closer cooperation with Bosnia, pledging support for the country’s territorial integrity.

Muslim-Croat and Serb entities were established in a U.S.-brokered peace agreement that ended Bosnia’s bloody 1992-95 conflict. Over 100,000 people died in the war.

The West has been alarmed with Russia’s mounting influence in the Balkans, particularly among the Bosnian Serbs and in neighboring Serbia.

Reflecting strong pro-Russian sentiments, thousands gathered later on Friday to greet Lavrov as he arrived in the main Bosnian Serb town of Banja Luka.

Huge Serb and Russian flags were on display along Lavrov’s route in the town and the highest security measures were in force.

At a joint press conference in Banja Luka with Dodik, Lavrov said the West is imposing a “false choice” on nations in the region between membership of the European Union or close relations with Russia.

He also rejected Western claims that Russia was trying to interfere with the Sept. 30 referendum in Macedonia to change the country’s name and qualify for NATO membership.

“We are not saying anything that can be seen as meddling in (Macedonia’s) internal affairs,” Lavrov said in comment translated from Russian by an official interpreter.

Dodik, who has advocated a separation of the Serbs from the rest of Bosnia, is running for office in Bosnia’s three-member presidency, described ties with Russia as “very fair” while criticizing Western influence in the country.

He said he was “proud” that Bosnian Serbs have blocked the possibility for Bosnia to join Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.

“I love and respect Russia, that’s true,” said Dodik. He added he “didn’t talk about the voters or the election” with Lavrov and that the timing of the visit was accidental.

Lavrov also visited the construction site for a future Serb-Russian church - the two nations are Orthodox Christian.

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