The parliament of Bosnia's Republika Srpska has approved a plan to end that republic's participation in all state institutions unless the country's EU-backed International Office of the High Representative (OHR) reverses a decision concerning the state electricity company.
The October 1 vote sets the stage for a potentially ugly showdown between the Republika Srpska -- which has long wanted the international community to withdraw its presence in the country -- and the OHR, which is currently held by Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko.
The OHR was established in 1995 after the war to oversee the peace agreement that ended hostilities. Since the end of the war, Bosnia has been divided into a Serbian region (Republika Srpska) and the Muslim-Croat Federation -- with power apportioned accordingly.
The high representative presides over both entities and has the power to impose and enforce laws and fire officials who obstruct the peace.
The trouble began last year, when Bosnian Serb minority shareholders of the national electricity distributor, Elektroprenos, began obstructing its operations and boycotting board meetings in an attempt to show that a joint Serbian-Muslim-Croatian entity cannot succeed.
Inzko has just taken a series of decisions to keep the Serbs in line and the power grid operational.
The October 1 vote in the Bosnian Serb parliament was a direct repudiation of Inzko's actions.
Threats From Banja Luka
Republika Srpska President Rajko Kuzmanovic has called for Inzko to "withdraw or freeze" his decisions and leave the solution to the electricity grid problems in the hands of locally run entities.
Before the vote in parliament, he said Republika Srpska would "not hesitate to withdraw [its] representatives from Bosnia's joint institutions and to call on the Republika Srpska citizens to declare [their views] in a direct and democratic way."
But a much wider call has already gone out.
Prime Minister Milorad Dodik wants to see the 14-year-old, EU-run OHR shut down. He recently told parliament: "The times have changed. It is high time that Bosnia gets out of the OHR protectorate."
Muslims and Croats, meanwhile, aspire to a more centralized state and are generally welcoming of EU-style reforms. In the Elektroprenos dispute, the Muslim-Croat federation, which is a majority share-holder in the grid, supports Inzko.
RFE/RL's Balkan Service director, Gordana Knezevic, says the vote suggests that members of the Bosnian Serb parliament share Dodik's contempt for the international community. She doesn't think Dodik will back down now.
"He's kind of challenging the international community," Knezevic says. "He's become used to the idea that, no matter what kind of disrespect he showed for the decisions of the international community, he's never had to withdraw, or apologize, or take a step back, because he's never faced a tough response. And the reason why he didn't face any tough response was the fact that the countries which are supposed to agree upon policy on Bosnia don't have the same opinions."
She adds: "It's the problem of nonexistent European policy toward Bosnia -- there's always someone who disagrees with whatever tough measures should be taken."
Knezevic adds that in Sarajevo, the capital of the federation, there is little expectation that the OHR or EU will have a decisive response to the vote.
"Nobody expects that the international community will now react differently compared to the last few months or last few years. [Dodik] has never actually faced any efficient or clear or tough decision on the part of the European Union," Knezevic says.
So far, Inzko's office has had no response to the vote.
A Breach Of Dayton?
Sulejman Tihic, a former member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency and the current head of SDA, the Party of Democratic Action, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the Serb parliament's decision to withdraw from governing institutions represents a grave breach of the peace deal that ended the war.
"This decision is the most serious violation of the Dayton peace agreement we've seen. The creation of the Office of the High Representative is mandated by both the constitution [of Bosnia-Herzegovina] and the Dayton agreement. And Republika Srpska is also a product of Dayton, as is the [Muslim-Croat] Federation," Tihic said.
"It's not possible to accept one aspect of Dayton and reject another. You can't approve of Republika Srpska but reject Annex 10 [of Dayton], which established the Office of the High Representative. It's not possible to approve of Republika Srpska but reject Annex 9, which guarantees the function of public corporations [like the Elektroprenos power grid operator]," he added.
In April, former High Representative Paddy Ashdown told a U.S. Congressional committee that he has seen a dramatic reversal of progress in Bosnia over the last few years, largely because of the Republika Srpska's scorn for the European Union.
Ashdown told the U.S. Helsinki Commission that "the progress of forward movement of Bosnia and Herzegovina towards a position not just of stability, but also functionality, as a state has now moved substantially into reverse. There are elements -- largely in the Republika Srpska -- who would wish to even undo the reforms toward statehood that have already been established. And indeed, [they] have been allowed to do so."
Belgrade In The Background
Just as it has never hidden its disdain for Brussels, Banja Luka has never hidden its loyalty to Belgrade.
The question of whether Serbia is offering either implicit or overt support in decisions made by Republika Srpska looms over the growing tensions.
On September 30, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic traveled to Banja Luka for talks with Dodik. In a breach of diplomatic ettiquette, he did not inform Sarajevo of his visit.
A similar oversight occurred on September 8, when Serbian President Boris Tadic showed up at the opening of a new school -- named "Serbia" -- in the town of Pale without first notifying Sarajevo.
In his remarks at the ribbon-cutting, Tadic said Serbia "has a responsibility to Serbs wherever they are. Serbia is not responsible for the citizens of Serbia alone; Serbia is responsible for all the people who belong to our nation."
Milenko Dereta, an analyst based in the Serbian capital, said the episode was part of an ongoing Serbian campaign to shatter Bosnian sovereignty and build a unified Serbian nation.
She said it would be "an achievement [in tolerance]" if a school named "Serbia" opened in Muslim-Croat half of Bosnia.
"But when it's in Republika Srpska," she said, "it's like a...flag being raised to mark territorial gains."
written by Heather Maher with reporting from RFE/RL's Balkan Service