Serb region’s referendum stokes tension in fractious Bosnia

Russia and the West at odds again amid bellicose Balkan rhetoric

Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, pictured on an election poster calling for votes for a referendum on their statehood day this Sunday, in Prnjavor, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, pictured on an election poster calling for votes for a referendum on their statehood day this Sunday, in Prnjavor, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

 

The Serb-run region of Bosnia, Republika Srpska, will hold a referendum on Sunday despite a ban from the state’s highest court, fierce criticism from western powers and rising anger among the fractious country’s Muslim majority.

The vote will ask Republika Srpska’s residents whether they want January 9th to continue to be its “statehood day”, despite Bosnia’s constitutional court ruling that it is discriminatory towards the country’s Muslim Bosniak and Catholic Croat communities because it coincides with a Serbian Orthodox Church holiday.

The date is also politically contentions, because it marks the day in 1992 when Bosnian Serb ultra-nationalists broke with the rest of Bosnia, leading to a war that killed 100,000 people and saw ethnic Serbs commit genocide against Bosniaks.

Bosnian Serb president Milorad Dodik has championed the holiday and the referendum, regardless of the court’s ban on both and the fury of Bosniaks who have long accused him of trying to destroy the multi-ethnic state.

Safer Halilovic, a Bosniak commander during the country’s 1992-95 war, warned that if Mr Dodik “forces us into a situation in which Bosnia is torn apart, he should know – this will not happen in a peaceful way”.

The retired general said that if conflict began, Bosnia’s mostly-Muslim federal forces could seize Republika Srpska within 15 days.

The reaction was swift in Serbia – which is led by a president and prime minister who were allies of warmongering ultra-nationalist Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, but who now portray themselves as broadly pro-EU conservatives.

“Serbia does not want conflict. However, Serbia . . . has an obligation to protect its people. Republika Srpska cannot be erased from the face of the earth, as Halilovic and maybe some others want,” Serbian premier Aleksandar Vucic said.

Mr Dodik rejects western efforts to integrate Bosnia’s two “entities” – Republika Srpska and a Bosniak-Croat Federation – and has threatened repeatedly to hold a referendum on independence rather than allow more powers to be transferred from his capital Banja Luka to the central authorities in Sarajevo.

“We know that the position of Sefer Halilovic, who is making threats of war, is the position of everyone in Sarajevo, but, I’m speaking hypothetically, if any movements of that kind take place, we are out of Bosnia the same instant . . . and we will defend ourselves,” Mr Dodik said.

The United States, European Union and major western capitals called jointly for calm and dialogue and denounced any efforts to destabilise or divide Bosnia.

Russia declined to sign that declaration, however, and Mr Dodik met Russian president Vladimir Putin for talks in the Kremlin on Thursday.

The referendum “was not specifically discussed”, Mr Dodik claimed, “except to note that it is a right of the people”.

Many Bosnians see the dispute as a cynical ploy to rally voters for local elections on October 2nd.

“The latest warmongering statements are solely for the purpose of the elections,” Banja Luka-based analyst Srdjan Puhalo told the Balkan Insight news service.

“They suit both sides because neither of them has anything else to offer the voters.”