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Bosnia’s Perfect Storm

  • Gordana Knezevic

Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska (left), and Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency (combo photo)

Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska (left), and Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency (combo photo)

Bosnia is currently facing its biggest existential crisis since the end of the war in 1995. The president of Republika Srpska, one of the two constituent entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina established by the Dayton agreement, has perhaps finally dared to reach for what many have long suspected was his ultimate goal -- secession, and the breakup of the country. Milorad Dodik is now actively pursuing the creation of a state within the state. To make matters worse, there is nobody in the other half of Bosnia (the Muslim-Croat Federation) to stop him, or even to make a sober political statement.

The immediate cause of the current crisis is the looming referendum on the entity’s Statehood Day, set for September 25 in defiance of both the country’s constitutional court and the international community. Each year, Serbs in Republika Srpska have been celebrating January 9 as Statehood Day. However, this is not the date when the Dayton peace agreement was signed and when the Serb republic was officially recognized as a constituent entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Rather, January 9 marks the day in 1992 when a self-proclaimed assembly unilaterally declared the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia. The leader of the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) at the time, and the man behind the proclamation, was Radovan Karadzic, later sentenced by The Hague tribunal for war crimes, including crimes against humanity and genocide.

On behalf of non-Serb inhabitants of Republika Srpska who felt that January 9 -- also an Orthodox religious holiday -- was not inclusive, and therefore inappropriate as Statehood Day, the Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, brought the case to the Bosnian Constitutional Court. In November 2015, the Constitutional Court concluded that celebrating on January 9 was not constitutional and the authorities in Republica Srpska were duly required to change the day. In response, Dodik decided to call a plebiscite on a simple question: Do you consider January 9 suitable as Statehood Day for Republika Srpska?

As the majority of Republika Srpska citizens are Serbs, the outcome is easy to predict. So “the will of people” will override the constitutional court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The gap between two entities -- the Serb and the Muslim-Croat -- will be wider. Even worse, many observers see the poll as a dress rehearsal for what would be an even more inflammatory referendum on secession.

Bozo Ljubic

Bozo Ljubic

Taking advantage of the brewing crisis, some among the Bosnian Croats see it as a chance to create a separate Croatian entity and thus achieve their own wartime goals in Bosnia. Responding to Dodik's referendum, Bozo Ljubic, president of the main board of the Croatian National Council in Bosnia, said that Dayton has to be revisited to answer the needs of Bosnian Croats. Talking to the Croatian newspaper Vecernji List, he said that Herceg Bosna is not dead. Herceg Bosna was a little Croatian parastate during the war (1992-95).

Meanwhile, Bosnian Muslim politicians are seemingly more concerned with what is happening in Turkey than in their own country. In the middle of the growing crisis in his country, Izetbegovic took part in the opening ceremony of a bridge over the Bosphorus in Turkey. He is using each and every opportunity to stress the importance of the friendship with Erdogan.
They are relying on the international community to stop Dodik’s referendum and failed to make meaningful comment on his meeting with the Serbian leadership on September 1.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, probably the only politician with some influence over Dodik, gave only a cryptic statement on August 29 that his government would react “responsibly and seriously” if the international community’s high representative in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, were to block the referendum in Republika Srpska. This is scarcely meant to deter Dodik.

“Serbia and its leadership neither supports nor opposes the referendum,” Dodik concluded and added: “That’s quite enough for me.”

The plebiscite is supposed to take place on September 25. Even a ban from the high representative, if issued, would not stop it under the present circumstances.

In theory, Inzko has the power to block Dodik’s referendum. His job is to safeguard the Dayton peace agreement and his intervention in this case would seem fully justified. Ignoring the Constitutional Court by going ahead with the referendum is a clear and direct challenge to the Dayton arrangement.

However, any move by Inzko has to be approved by the Peace Implementation Council, which has 55 member countries and was established in 1995 to provide international support to the Dayton agreement. Russia is a member of this council and it is blocking any firm decision on the coming plebiscite. It has consistently and deliberately played the role of spoiler in the last few years, doing everything to undermine Bosnia’s fragile stability.

In a parallel development, the Republika Srpska police forces held a joint exercise with their Serbian counterparts at the end of August. In response, war veterans in Bosnia asked to be issued live ammunition for their own war games, code-named “Freedom For All.” The demand came from former members of a wartime unit of the Bosnian Army named the “green berets.” The mere idea of the “green berets” exercising with any kind of ammunition is spreading fear among ordinary citizens.

Ignoring calls from some foreign diplomats to give up on his referendum, Dodik continues to push the boundaries. He is all set for another piece of political theater on September 11, the date of a ceremony to mark the opening of a section of the highway between Doboj and Prnjavor. The project was financed by loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and is supposed to provide a better link between the towns of Doboj to Banja Luka. Controversially, the highway will be named “January 9” -- a sign of Dodik’s determination to promote the day he considers crucial to the identity of Republika Srpska.

Dodik’s moves are nothing new, although he is now attempting to formally enshrine the most virulently nationalist and divisive version of the recent past -- with little resistance home or abroad. September in Bosnia could be a dangerous month.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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