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Bosnia Serb Government Rapped Over Referendum Push

The government's move -- and Dodik's referendum plan -- has been criticized as a violation of the 1995 Dayton accords.
A move by the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serbian entity to approve a draft law on referendums has drawn international criticism.

The Republika Srpska government approved the bill on January 26, with ministers saying they would ask the entity's parliament to hold a special session soon to vote on the legislation.

Republika Srpska's Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik, has vowed to call a referendum to increase the entity's autonomy once the legislation is in place.

No date has been set, and it's not certain what question would be put to voters. But Dodik has threatened to hold referendums on several issues -- Bosnia's NATO bid; the presence of foreign judges in the country's courts; support for the Dayton agreement that ended the Bosnian war; or secession from Bosnia.

The government's move -- and Dodik's referendum plan -- has been criticized as a violation of the 1995 Dayton accords. Those state that Republika Srpska, as a constituent entity of Bosnia, does not have the power to call a referendum.

'Manipulating Voters'

Mario Brkic, a spokesman for Valentin Inzko, the international community's high representative to Bosnia, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that Dodik's government was bound by the Dayton agreement in its entirety.

"The government of Republika Srpska for this reason should stop threatening the international obligations and commitments of BiH," Brkic says. "By organizing a referendum on these issues, in our opinion, the SNSD [Dodik's Alliance of Independent Social Democrats] is manipulating voters in Republika Srpska in order to draw attention away from the real economic problems facing citizens."

In Brussels, Eduard Kukan, chairman of the European Parliament's delegation for the countries of the Western Balkans, told RFE/RL the move was "very dangerous for the future" of Bosnia.

"I think that it was [a] wrong political decision, to say [the] least, to present this kind of referendum. because if they go on like that it will be in violation of the Dayton agreement because the territorial integrity of the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina has to be kept," Kukan says. "There is no possibility for Republika Srpska to break away.

"The best thing would be if the parliament does not approve it," he added. "And the second issue is that the international community should respond in a more united voice which would express the clear and categorical view that this kind of moves of the country are not possible and can only destroy or worsen the situation."

Political Theater?

Some analysts suggest the referendum issue might be part of domestic political maneuvering ahead of elections planned for October.

Bruce Hitchner, a professor of international relations at Tufts University and chair of the Dayton Peace Accords project, tells RFE/RL it's not yet clear if there will even be a referendum or if the issue is "political theater."

Hitchner says it would be difficult for the international community to prevent one from going ahead. But he says it could declare any referendum illegal and nonbinding to avoid setting what he describes as a dangerous precedent.

"It would have deleterious consequences for the whole country on a number of levels," Hitchner says. "First of all, this might cause people in the other entity to organize a referendum rejecting the referendum held in the RS [Republika Srpska]. It could unleash other referendums related to a whole set of issues which nobody wants."

Since the end of the war Bosnia has consisted of two separate entities -- Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation. Each has its own government and the two are linked by weak central institutions.

Tensions among Bosnia's three rival communities have been rising in recent months and leaders failed late last year to agree to EU and U.S.-proposed constitutional changes aimed at increasing the efficiency of Bosnia's government.

Dodik first raised the issue of self-determination for Republika Srpska following Montenegro's independence referendum in 2006 and in the run-up to Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence.

Contributing to this story were Ahto Lobjakas in Brussels and Dragan Stavljanin in Prague

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