SARAJEVO -- The Bosnian Serb parliament has adopted a set of steps that would strengthen a secessionist bid to withdraw from state-level institutions despite warnings from the West.
Lawmakers on December 10 voted 49-3 on starting a procedure for Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb-dominated entity to withdraw from the Bosnian Army, security services, tax system, and judiciary.
They also voted on a declaration that calls for the drafting of a new constitution for the entity, Republika Srpska, and states that "all laws imposed" by the international high representative for Bosnia are "unconstitutional."
Deputies of the opposition left the session before the vote.
Bosnia has been in a protracted political crisis over secessionist moves by Republika Srpska, reviving fears that the peace deal which ended a 1992-95 war could unravel and threaten regional stability.
The U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords created two highly autonomous entities that share some joint institutions: the Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation. The country is governed and administered along ethnic lines established by the agreement, with a weak and often dysfunctional central government.
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, the Serbian representative in the tripartite presidency, has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from state-level institutions, describing Bosnia as "an experiment by the international community" and an "impossible, imposed country."
Bosnia "is moving in a direction we did not agree to when signing the Dayton accords. The verdicts of the Constitutional Court...and the Court of [Bosnia-Herzegovina] make us angry. We have a feeling that [Bosnia] is going in the wrong direction. One by one, the competencies of the Republika Srpska are changing," Dodik said ahead of the vote.
But the leader of the opposition Serbian Democratic Party, Mirko Sarovic, accused Dodik of leading the entity down a "disastrous" path that could end in war.
For years, Dodik has advocated for the separation of the Republika Srpska and having it become part of neighboring Serbia.
His push gained momentum over the summer when the Western-appointed high representative imposed a series of laws prohibiting the denial of genocide, war crimes, and the glorification of those convicted of such crimes before international or local courts.
The Bosnian War started in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs, with the help of the Serb-led Yugoslav army, tried to create ethnically pure territories with the aim of joining neighboring Serbia. More than 100,000 people were killed and millions were left homeless.
Dodik has reiterated his claim that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces "did not take place."
The massacre has been declared a genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The Office of the High Representative's (OHR) duties include overseeing and coordinating the implementation of the Dayton agreement, but its sweeping powers has made it the target of criticism.
The OHR was not allowed to attend the parliamentary proceedings, despite requesting it be granted access.
"All parties have an obligation to fully respect the General Framework Agreement for Peace. The Office of the High Representative requires the Republika Srpska National Assembly to respect the OHR's mandate," the OHR said.
Following the imposition of the genocide law, Republika Srpska politicians began blocking the work of state-level institutions, including the tripartite presidency, Council of Ministers, and Parliamentary Assembly.
The Serb entity's moves toward secession have spurred a flurry of diplomacy, with Western envoys trying to find a political solution and persuading Dodik to reverse course.
The Kremlin and Serbia tacitly support Dodik's actions, and the Bosnian Serb leader met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week.
The United States has already imposed a travel ban and assets freeze on Dodik and both U.S. and EU officials have recently threatened more sanctions in case the Bosnian Serbs try to secede.
"As a signing witness of the Dayton peace accords, the United States reiterates that moves to unilaterally withdraw from state-level institutions or otherwise destabilize the [accords] will be met with appropriate action, including the consideration of sanctions," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a letter to members of Bosnia's tripartite presidency last month.
The United States has previously said there was "no constitutional way" for the Republika Srpska to unilaterally withdraw from national institutions. Dodik says the institutions he wants to leave were not enshrined in the Dayton constitution but were created through amendments.