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Pleas For Peace Cut Through Serbs' Challenge To Bosnian Unity

Graffiti has appeared in Sarajevo with the message "Mir" (Peace) in all three local languages.
Graffiti has appeared in Sarajevo with the message "Mir" (Peace) in all three local languages.

SARAJEVO -- The graffiti, stenciled in Latin and Cyrillic scripts to appeal to Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, appeared on walls in the Bosnian capital this week: "I am for peace" and "Peace, peace, peace."

Hours later, on October 20, Bosnian Serb lawmakers in the entity composing half of Bosnia-Herzegovina passed a law seen as the most direct challenge in years to centralized authority in this Balkan country.

The Sarajevo scrawlings and the vote both reflect intensifying secessionist tactics and a six-month ultimatum from ethnic Serbs intent on carving out military and other powers currently vested in the joint federal state.

The new law, setting up a medicines regulator, is one of the first concrete steps in an accelerated push for independence in Republika Srpska, a push championed by the Serbian member of Bosnia's ethnically partitioned three-way presidency, veteran nationalist politician Milorad Dodik.

His separatism has reopened wounds in this country of 3 million people still deeply scarred by war.

"His policy seems to be leading Republika Srpska to war," Uros Trkulja, a pensioner in the city of Banja Luka, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "I fought a war and God forbid, brother, if war breaks out I'll flee into the woods. I wouldn't want to go at all."

Sarajevo resident Hidajet Memic took an even dimmer view of Dodik's efforts. "Anything could happen," he said, "He can start it, but I'm afraid of everything. I'mafraid of the whole situation."

'Within The Dayton Agreement'?

Bosnia is still governed and administered under the 25-year-old Dayton accords that ended the three-year Bosnian War, one of several conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.

In addition to Republika Srpska, the other, nearly equally sized entity that makes up Bosnia is a Muslim and Croat federation, along with a small autonomous district called Brcko.

As recently as this month, Dodik had pledged to pursue an independent Republika Srpska "within the Dayton agreement." But his latest moves look like a departure from that path.

The Republika Srpska law, which creates its own Agency for Medical Equipment and Drugs, is almost certain to be challenged before the national Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, prosecutors for Bosnia's federal government also said this week that they were investigating whether Dodik's actions constitute an "undermining of the constitutional order."

On October 8, Dodik announced that he and the rest of Republika Srpska's leadership would declare independence within six months by withdrawing from key institutions, if they were blocked from reclaiming some powers from the federal government.

Those institutions Dodik and his allies threaten to withdraw from include the federal armed forces, the top judiciary and prosecutorial body, and the federal tax authority.

Dodik also threatened to withdraw from the federal intelligence agency and establish a local equivalent, as well as to rescind support for a planned federal police force known as the State Investigation and Protection Agency.

'Let Everything Be Fine, Let There Be Peace'

In another blow to federalism, Zeljka Cvijanovic, who is the head of Republika Srpska and a Dodik ally, said this month she would ignore a recent national law by Bosnia's international overseer that criminalized denial of genocide and other serious war crimes from the 1990s.

Acknowledgment of the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995, when some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces, is seen by many as a litmus test for reconciliation in the region.

Soviet-style appeals for "peace" -- on billboards, in art and sculpture, or on television -- were a staple of life in the Eastern Bloc and among aligned countries like the former Yugoslavia.

But many Bosnians don't regard their current concerns as mere window-dressing.

An unofficial European Union note that circulated earlier this year proposed border changes in Bosnia and other parts of the Balkans to address long-standing grievances. The note was widely believed to be authored by Slovenia -- another former Yugoslav republic -- on the eve of its taking over the rotating six-month EU presidency.

The "peace" graffiti appears to have been one response to those broader tensions, in addition to the more urgent threats emanating from Republika Srpska.

Zarko Kapor, a resident of East Sarajevo, which is Republika Srpska's administrative capital, said that he didn't follow politics closely but agreed with Dodik's aims of giving more power to the local authorities in Bosnia's regions.

"Let everything be fine, let there be peace," Kapor told RFE/RL this week.

A woman who was selling socks and herbs nearby to supplement her pension told RFE/RL: "They only raise tensions while prices rise -- they entertain the people with politics. Nobody cares about the fact that people are socially endangered, so no one -- no one -- is interested in...what happens to people and their meager pensions and that young people are leaving the country."

The tensions have drawn the attention of EU and U.S. officials. After a meeting between EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, the two issued a statement on October 20 that appeared to push back against Dodik and his allies.

Washington and Brussels had "firm support for the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina," they said, and they backed ongoing electoral and constitutional reforms to help government agencies there. "We have serious concerns about increasingly divisive rhetoric in Bosnia-Herzegovina," they said. "We call on all parties to respect and protect state institutions, resume constructive dialogue, and take steps to advance progress on the EU integration path -- including on relevant reforms."

The latest official figures, from a 2013 census, indicate Bosnia is about half Bosniak, followed by 30 percent Serbian and about 15 percent Croatian.

Written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting in Sarajevo by Meliha Kesmer of RFE/RL's Balkan Service and in East Sarajevo and Banja Luka by RFE/RL's Balkan Service
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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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    Meliha Kesmer

    Meliha Kesmer is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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