Bosnia-Herzegovina (TGS) – The semi-autonomous region called Republika Sprska within the functionally weak nation-state Bosnia-Herzegovina held a seemingly innocuous referendum on September 25, 2016. The referendum was on whether to celebrate a national day on January 9, the date when the Republika Sprska declared itself independent in 1992. For most other countries’ context, this would be so benign of an affair that such an issue would not need a referendum. However, in Republika Srpska the national day celebration is a much more complex affair with deep underpinnings of societal division.
Bosnia’s constitutional court back in November 2015 declared the referendum illegal, stating that such a national day would be deemed discriminatory against Bosniak Muslims and Croatians. Despite the constitutional court’s rulings, the referendum took place as scheduled with 55% voter turnout, and 99% of the votes in favor of the national day. It is noteworthy that there is an international body which was set up to oversee the 1995 peace agreement over Bosnia and it has the legal power to block the referendum, yet this body decided to stay quiet.
Bosnia’s constitutional court back in November 2015 declared the referendum illegal, stating that such a national day would be deemed discriminatory against Bosniak Muslims and Croatians.
It is now believed that the national day referendum is a mere dry-run towards a full blown secession vote expected in the near future, where Republika Sprska may secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Milorad Dodik, the henchman of the Bosnian Serbs said recently that there will be a secession vote as early as 2018.
Reopening the wounds of the Bosnian civil war of the 1990’s
On January 9, 1992, which happened to be the St. Stephen’s patron day celebrated by Orthodox Christians, Republika Srpska unilaterally emerged as a new nation-state within the Bosnia and Herzegovina. This event is widely seen as the key in setting the war in Bosnia in full swing later on in April 1992, and it was no surprise when the idea of celebrating this very day emerged in 2015, many saw this as expression of keeping alive the secessionist ideals among the Serbs in Bosnia.
Ignoring the ban of the Bosnian Constitutional court, Republika Srpska authorities celebrated its “holiday” on January of this year. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, personally showed up for the festivities. This sparked indignation within the Federation part of Bosnia an Herzegovina, a joint Muslim and Croat entity. A debate started whether the Office of the High Representative (“OHR”), also dubbed as “Bosnia’s governor” should use its powers and put an end to this celebration.
Upping the ante, Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb president, in July 2016, through a Parliamentary decision proclaimed that there will be a referendum to decide the fate of “the holiday”, which was eventually held on September 25, 2016.
According to the results presented by Republika Srpska officials, 99.79 percent of the voters in that entity said “yes” to retaining of January 9 as the national holiday.
The Republika Sprska referendum exposed the fault-line that still exists between the Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats after two decades of an uneasy settlement deal ending the Bosnian war.
It is now believed that the national day referendum is a mere dry-run towards a full blown secession vote expected in the near future, where Republika Sprska may secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The 1995 settlement over the fate of Bosnia, had left the country divided into two pieces as part of a grand bargain. Through this accord, Bosnian Serbs retained limited autonomy with their own government, at the expense of shelving their long standing quest for total independence. The dream of establishing a centralized state for the Bosniak Muslims was also shelved. The Bosnians are the largest demographic bloc within Bosnia’s complex ethnic profile.
The national day referendum debate quickly turned into nasty war of words. Sefer Halilovic, a former Bosnian war general told a local TV station that “We are not threatening anyone, but we will not let anyone take away a part of Bosnia-Herzegovina without calamity.”
Serbian foreign minister Ivica Dacic responded by saying that the “former Bosnian Muslim commander’s threats against Republika Srpska represent the greatest threat to peace and stability in the region…….compromise was not important to them [Bosnians], instead an excuse for war intentions and plans, for which Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina are obviously preparing.”
Given the bloody Balkan history in the backdrop, there is always a fear that such acrimonious choice of words may even end up leading to another military conflict.
Referendum may seem democratic, yet it is troubling
The whole matter of a “national holiday” might seem overblown in some other parts of the world. Balkan experts are of the opinion that this “issue should never have reached the front pages of the newspapers, let alone the courts, let alone the country’s highest court”.
Some other experts are of the view that the Balkans have a habit of converting democratic processes like a referendum into risky political gambits or dangerous nationalistic tools. Late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic often played the referendum card, particularly when he wanted to promote some part of his Serbian nationalistic agenda.
With all of the above points in mind, it is no wander that calling of the “Dodik Referendum” raised suspicions, not only within Bosnia, but among the wider international community, particularly the US and EU.
Putting a referendum in hands of a politician like Dodik, somebody who went the “usual” Balkan political route from a democratic reformist and EU supporter to a staunch nationalist hailing suspected war criminals like Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic was bound to raise suspicions. Dodik’s political party the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, has started working towards an independence referendum in 2018.
What is next for Bosnia now?
All the efforts to prevent the holding of the Bosnian Serb referendum didn’t come up with a result. Neither the Dayton agreement nor the powerful regional players like Russia and Turkey were of any help.
Although according to the Agreement, the OHR has the right to intervene in matters like this, The Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the ad-hoc body made up of countries and international organizations overseeing the OHR, did not give current OHR Valentin Inzko the go ahead to do anything meaningful.
This further exposed the weaknesses of the Dayton institutions in Bosnia. Some analysts are now claiming that “the referendum proved that the safeguards enshrined in the Dayton peace accord that ended the 1992-95 war are now invalid – a nightmare scenario that some local and international officials have feared for years”.
There is still a chance that Serbia might intervene and persuade Dodik and Bosnian Serbs to find common grounds. In his own tradition of trying to work along with the US and EU on one hand, and at the same time keeping Serbian nationalists happy, the Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic did not publicly support the referendum, but did not go as far as to impose any pressure on Dodik to stop it.
The referendum proved that the safeguards enshrined in the Dayton peace accord that ended the 1992-95 war are now invalid – a nightmare scenario that some local and international officials have feared for years.
Russia and also Turkey now have the room to get involved. In fact, before holding the referendum, Dodik paid a visit to the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. For his part, Putin evaded giving direct support to the national day referendum. Russia’s reluctance to fully endorse the Serbian National Day referendum may mean that Moscow actively managed to not enter another dispute over the referendum with the West.
Turkey’s current leadership may happily provide Bosnia-Herzegovina whatever level of support they request, since backing up the Bosniak leadership would only reinforce Turkish President Erdogan’s support in Turkey and show him as a major player on the regional, if not international, political scene.
With the outcome of the referendum and high pitched acrimony surrounding it, the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina remains far from being a settled affair.
This report prepared byfor The GeoStrategists.