Lawmakers in the autonomous Serb region of Bosnia have voted to hold a referendum on the authority of the national court over Serbs, in a move the West says is an open challenge to the integrity of the Bosnian state.
By a slim majority, lawmakers backed the proposal by Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia's Republika Srpska, who has grown increasingly bold in advocating the country's dissolution 20 years after it emerged from war.
The vote came only a day after top diplomats in Bosnia representing the European Union and United States warned Serb leaders that the proposed referendum would be "a direct threat to the sovereignty and security" of Bosnia that "cannot be tolerated."
The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo quickly denounced the vote as the work of "corrupt forces," warning it might take action against "those responsible for creating this political provocation."
In April, Dodik's ruling party said it would seek a referendum in 2018 on Republika Srpska's secession unless the region is granted greater powers, deepening concern in the West that Bosnia risks unraveling.
Addressing parliament, Dodik argued the Sarajevo-based court was biased against Orthodox Serbs, who share power in Bosnia with Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats.
The referendum has still to pass the upper house of the regional parliament, where Muslim Bosniaks are expected to refer it to the Constitutional Court.
"But regardless of that, the referendum will be held because we regard Constitutional Court decisions as political rather than legal," said Dodik.
If it goes ahead, the vote will further undermine European efforts to encourage reform in Bosnia. European and U.S. leaders have been trying to nudge Bosnia along a path to integration with the European Union after years of economic and political stagnation.
While on the whole Bosniaks and Croats see their future in closer integration with Western Europe, Dodik has been trying to deepen ties with traditional Serbian ally Russia.
Russia notably did not sign a statement issued July 14 by Bosnia's Peace Implementation Council, which includes the United States and EU, warning that the referendum pushed by Bosnian Serbs would be a "fundamental violation" of the Dayton peace accords that ended the 1992-95 war.
Bosnia's international peace overseer, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, has the power to block the referendum, which would be held within 50 days of parliament's decision being published in the Official Gazette.