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Bosnian Serbs Call Off Controversial Referendum

EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton meets with Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik in Banja Luka on May 13.
The Bosnian Serb leadership has called off a controversial referendum that had sparked a political crisis and threatened to sour ties with the international community.

The referendum, planned for next month, would have asked Bosnian Serbs whether they accept the authority of the national court and of the UN-appointed envoy to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik made the announcement today after meeting with EU foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton in Banja Luka -- the capital of the Serbian entity in Bosnia, Republika Srpska:

"We should all work together to bring the judiciary in line with European standards," he said.

"After these talks, I believe we have a credible partner for this dialogue. We want to give this dialogue a chance. This is why we believe a referendum is not necessary for now."

Dodik told a joint news conference that he had chosen to drop the referendum after receiving assurances from Ashton that Serbian concerns about Bosnia's judicial system would be addressed:

"During talks with Baroness Ashton and other European officials in recent days, we received the highest guarantees that the European Union is ready to tackle the issues surrounding Bosnia and Herzegovina's judiciary," Dodik said.

Since the Dayton agreement ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war, which killed some 100,000 people, the country has been divided into two autonomous regions -- Republika Srpska and a federation shared by Muslims and Croats.

The Bosnian Serb leadership has made no secret of its skepticism toward central institutions overseeing the two entities, particularly of the national court tasked with prosecuting war crimes suspects.

Constructive Dialogue

Dodik, who has advocated the secession of his region from Bosnia, has long criticized the court as being biased against Serbs.

He has also questioned the extensive powers of Valentin Inzko, the top international envoy mandated to oversee the Dayton agreement's implementation. He can impose laws or fire elected officials who breach the peace accords.

Inzko had threatened to annul the referendum if the Bosnian Serbs did not cancel it themselves.

Ashton, whose surprise visit underscored the international community's alarm, welcomed the decision to drop the divisive poll.

The European Union, she pledged, will start reviewing the role of Bosnia's judicial institutions. She also echoed Dodik in saying that "the best way forward is constructive dialogue" on the issue.

Dodik must now persuade the Bosnian Serb assembly to revoke the decision on a referendum. But he told Ashton that he was confident of gaining lawmakers' support.

written by Claire Bigg with reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service
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