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Tensions Rise As Bosnian Serbs Vote In Banned Referendum


Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, on an election billboard calling for people to vote in a referendum on their statehood day in the western town of Banja Luka.
Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, on an election billboard calling for people to vote in a referendum on their statehood day in the western town of Banja Luka.

Voters in Bosnia-Herzegovina's autonomous Bosnian Serb entity have cast their ballots in a controversial referendum held in defiance of a high-court ruling from Sarajevo.

The September 25 referendum has led to the most heated debate between Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Serb officials since the 1995 U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords created the Republika Srpska as one of two constituent states within Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The referendum asks whether voters in Republika Srpska want to maintain a "statehood day" holiday on January 9 -- a Serbian Orthodox Christian holiday and the anniversary of Bosnian Serb lawmakers' 1992 declaration of independence from Bosnia, which fueled three years of ethnic war.

Authorities said turnout was between 56 and 60 percent. Preliminary results after 30.76 percent of the ballots were counted say 99.8 percent of the voters were in favor of the holiday.

The voting ended at 7 p.m. local time without any major incidents.

Dragan Lukac, Republika Srpska's interior minister and head of its election commission, said on September 25 at a news conference in the city of Banja Luka that "everything is going smoothly" and no incidents had been reported anywhere.

He said there was an absence of voting in Bosniak areas of Republika Srpska, adding that more than a dozen polling stations were not even opened for voting.

Critics of the referendum say it is stoking ethnic tension and is bolstering separatist sentiment within the Bosnian Serb ministate.

Non-Serbs see the date as a symbol of their expulsion from Bosnian Serb-controlled territory and an indication that Republika Srpska is meant just for Serbs.

On September 17, Bosnia's Sarajevo-based Constitutional Court banned the referendum, ruling that the January 9 holiday illegally discriminates against Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats.

The Bosnian Serb entity's nationalist president, Milorad Dodik, has pushed for it to go forward.

His critics accuse him of trying to set the stage for a future referendum, possibly in 2018, on whether the Republika Srpska should secede from Bosnia.

Such a move would effectively mean the end of the Dayton accords, which brought a formal end to Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.

Dodik, speaking on September 25 to journalists in the town of Laktasi after casting his ballot, said it was an "important day, a solemn day."

"There will probably be joy over the [referendum] results tonight; the atmosphere looks like that," he said. "The days ahead will bring something [new], but we will see in what way."

Asked what his response would be to the Sarajevo-based Bosnian prosecutor's office that has announced it will file criminal charges against him for holding the referendum, Dodik said, "If somebody wants to arrest anybody, let them arrest the whole referendum and hold it accountable."

Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, has warned that holding the referendum in defiance of the Constitutional Court could lead to "an adventure" in which "things could slip out of control."

Speaking in Sarajevo on September 17, Izetbegovic said that "no one is more prepared to defend this country than we are, to defend its constitutional order and territorial integrity."

Dodik insists that secession is not part of his short-term plans for the Republika Srpska.

"On our agenda there is no secession," Dodik told RFE/RL's correspondent in Banja Luka on September 19. "Will secession become a question in the coming years, whether my generation will do it or not? I don't know. But I suppose, having in mind the way things are moving and the brutal force used for imposing things and taking away...that this may get on the agenda."

On September 20, Dodik said those describing the statehood-day referendum as a "secession referendum" were spreading "some sort of hysteria."

"It is not a secession referendum," Dodik insisted. "It’s not even the beginning of this process."

In Belgrade in early September, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that "Serbia is and will always be behind the Republika Srpska," adding that "anyone who thinks that they can overrun the Republika Srpska must know that this is impossible because Serbia is always behind Republika Srpska."

Serbia's military forces have been ordered to be vigilant.

Western officials have urged Republika Srpska to cancel the referendum, saying that it challenges the rule of law and the Dayton peace accords.

Valentin Inzko, the European Union's high representative for Bosnia, said the planned referendum is "a direct attack against a constitutional court and, in such a way, it is also an attack on the state."

Inzko said "in the past 20 years we have not heard such language" from officials in Bosnia.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo has said there would be unspecified "consequences" if the September 25 vote was not canceled.

The Peace Implementation Council, an international body that oversees the Dayton accords, also has urged the Bosnian Serbs to cancel the referendum.

It said in a statement that Bosnia's borders will not be redrawn and it called on all sides "to refrain from reactive measures and divisive rhetoric."

But Russia, one of the council members and a traditional supporter of Orthodox Slavic Serbs, distanced itself from the statement.

The Russian ambassador to Bosnia has publicly supported the September 25 referendum and called it an act of democracy.

Underlining the Kremlin's support for the Republika Srpska, Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 22 welcomed Dodik to Moscow on an official visit where the two discussed what Russian state-controlled media described as "bilateral interaction."

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, AP, Reuters, AFP, AP, TASS, and Interfax
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