Bosnian Serbs have voted overwhelmingly to maintain a Statehood Day holiday on January 9 in a controversial referendum held in defiance of a high-court ruling from Sarajevo.
Authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s autonomous Bosnian Serb entity said that with more than 70 percent of ballots counted in the September 25 vote, 99.8 percent supported the holiday.
Turnout was between 56 and 60 percent.
Republika Srpska’s nationalist President Milorad Dodik said the vote would go down in history as the "day of Serb determination."
"I am proud of the people of Republika Srpska, of all those who came out and voted," Dodik said in the town of Pale, near Sarajevo.
January 9 is 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.
The 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 Republika Srpska as one of two constituent states within Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Dragan Lukac, interior minister in Republika Srpska and its electoral commission head, speaking earlier on September 25 in the city of Banja Luka, said "everything was 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 president has pushed for it to go forward.
Dodik, speaking in the town of Laktasi after casting his ballot, said it was an "important day, a solemn day."
"The days ahead will bring something [new], but we will see in what way," he also said.
Asked what his response would be to the Sarajevo-based Bosnia-Herzegovina 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."
Dodik’s critics accuse him of trying to set the stage for a future referendum, possibly in 2018, on whether Republika Srpska should secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Such a move would effectively mean the end of the Dayton accords, which brought a formal end to Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosnian Muslim member of Bosnia-Herzegovina'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 "no one is more prepared to defend this country than we are, to defend its constitutional order and territorial integrity."
Dodik has insisted that secession is not part of his short-term plans for Republika Srpska.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, speaking on September 24 in Belgrade, said the "most important thing is that peace and stability are maintained in the region, including Bosnia-Herzegovina."
He added that "Serbia respects the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina and of Republika Srpska."
Earlier this month, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that "Serbia is and will always be behind Republika Srpska," adding that "anyone who thinks that they can overrun 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 had 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-Herzegovina, 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-Herzegovina.
The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo earlier 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, had also 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-Herzegovina 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."