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For Bosnia’s Dodik, Referendum Law Means It's Make-Or-Break Time

Milorad Dodik's latest move is a major challenge to Western authority in Bosnia.
Milorad Dodik's latest move is a major challenge to Western authority in Bosnia.
The parliament of the Republika Srpska on February 10 pushed through a law that will allow the Bosnian entity to conduct referendums. The controversial law comes at the urging of the entity's prime minister, Milorad Dodik, who has threatened to use a public plebiscite to challenge the authority of Bosnia's international minders or even secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina altogether.

The vote was held despite stringent objections from the Western community, which says the move violates the terms of the Dayton agreement that ended the Bosnian War in 1995. But with the new law, Dodik -- who had distanced himself from the proceedings by traveling to Italy for a meeting with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- will enter the final phase of his drive to preserve his entity's autonomy or even secure its independence.

The West has played a relatively passive role in Bosnia for the past several years. But in recent months, it has spoken with a louder voice against attempts to destabilize the fragile Balkan nation, which it eventually hopes to bring into the EU fold. With Dodik's latest maneuver, the West may be facing the biggest challenge to Bosnia's existence and its own authority there since the war.

The EU's new foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said in January that the Bosnian Serb entity "can have as many referendums as it likes, but in the end, this is about one country coming together." The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo this week warned that it would interpret as "provocative" any referendum that "threatens the stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity" of the Balkan country.

Dodik has steadfastly rejected plans to strengthen Bosnia's central institutions, which he sees as representing a mortal danger to his entity. His stance -- which in heady moments extends to the secession threat -- has been a policy mainstay since his triumphant return to politics in the 2006 general elections, when he rode to victory on a massive wave of support for his newfound nationalist zeal.

It remains unclear when, and how, Dodik may choose to exercise the new referendum law. But it comes in direct response to a decision in December by the international community's high representative to Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, to extend the mandate of foreign judges and prosecutors working on Bosnian court cases on war crimes and organized crime.

Some of those cases potentially implicate Dodik, who has been frequently accused of corruption, and it is clear that at least one motivation for the prime minister in pushing for the referendum law is to eliminate unwelcome foreign scrutiny of his business dealings. Bosnian Serb lawmakers were far from united in the February 10 vote; detractors acknowledged the move was seen as an attempt to protect Dodik from prosecution.

Dodik has suggested he would use a referendum to ask the public whether they support the Dayton accords, which he says were "violated" by Inzko's move. He has also indicated a referendum could be used to gauge Bosnian Serb support for a Bosnian NATO bid -- a move that reflects the growing neutrality of neighboring Serbia regarding relations with the military alliance.

Potential Backlash

Speaking to deputies on February 9 ahead of the vote, Dodik said ethnic Serbs support the idea of Bosnia as a union of two entities and three peoples, and sought to downplay the secession issue as a "hypothetical question." But the recent examples of Montenegro and Kosovo have also lent a frisson of possibility to the debate, and Dodik has argued strongly that the Republika Srpska ultimately has the right to self-determination.

Defenders of Dayton say its terms prohibit referendums in either of the two entities, and it's not clear Dodik will dare to proceed with an actual vote. But the mere specter of a plebiscite presents the West with a dilemma as it seeks to convince Bosnian officials to accept a series of constitutional reforms leading to a more united, centralized form of government.

International authorities failed to secure such agreement at talks last autumn, and the clock is now ticking: Bosnia holds elections in October. If its state parliament fails to approve the proposed set of reforms by May, the vote will proceed according to current government structures. This, for the West and supporters of a united Bosnia, would be a major opportunity lost.

Four years ago, it was the Bosniak side that scuppered the deal, when Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Muslim head of the country's tripartite presidency, rejected the deal on the grounds that they did not sufficiently weaken the individual entities. Montenegro held its referendum on independence from Serbia the following month. Both events helped propel Dodik to power during elections later that year, and solidified his transition from a onetime darling of the West to a die-hard nationalist bent on enhancing the autonomy of the Republika Srpska. As a result, there has been virtually no progress on Bosnia's constitutional reforms in the past four years.

Inzko's predecessors had made extensive use of their office's sweeping powers to impose laws and sack officials. But his move in December was seen as bucking the trend of falling back on executive powers, choosing instead a softer tactic to encourage Bosnia to begin functioning without outside intervention. Were Inzko to move now against either the referendum or Dodik himself, it would risk provoking a backlash that, with only 2,000 EU peacekeepers on the ground, could be hard to control.

Belgrade's Role

Dennis Blair, the director of U.S. national intelligence, warned this month that Bosnia this year represents Europe's biggest security threat. "While neither widespread violence nor a formal breakup of the state appears imminent, ethnic agendas still dominate the political process," he told the U.S. Senate intelligence committee.

It remains to be seen how far Dodik is prepared to go in pursuit of his agenda; will he hold a referendum or not? The Republika Srpska opposition and some regional analysts have accused him of using the referendum as a hot-button issue to divert attention away from his region's deteriorating economic situation and sinking approval rates ahead of the October elections.

Dodik had promised to turn the Republika Srpska into an economic powerhouse. But a number of large foreign investment projects have collapsed under his watch, and profits from privatization have long since dried up.

In a potentially telling moment, a candidate from Dodik's Alliance for Independent Social Democrats lost last month in a mayoral by-election in Bileca, an impoverished region in the entity's southeast. Dodik and his party pledged massive support for Bileca four years ago, pinpointing it as the site of a proposed economic renaissance. Now there are fears the same disappointment that felled Dodik's Bileca candidate may strike the prime minister come October.

"Much of what has been promised in the election campaign in 2006 has not been realized," said Srdjan Puhalo, a pollster in the Bosnian Serb capital, Banja Luka, who like some other analysts sees Dodik losing his overall majority in the parliament after the October polls. "It's time to pay up, and his popularity is shrinking," Puhalo said.

Some analysts point to Belgrade as crucial to resolving the standoff with Dodik, who so far has enjoyed full backing from Serbian President Boris Tadic. Belgrade has repeatedly voiced support for the Dayton peace agreement, and Tadic said last month that Serbia, which itself is trying to reverse Kosovo's independence declaration, would never support a referendum that would lead to the breakup of its neighbor.

Some observers, however, say the balance of power between Belgrade and Banja Luka is far more ambiguous. "Dodik is the most popular politician in the Serb corps," said Dusan Janjic of the Belgrade Forum for Ethnic Relations. "I personally think that Dodik is stronger than Tadic and there is little Tadic can do."