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The Politics Of Fear: Referendum In Republika Srpska

The president of the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik (left), and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet near Moscow on September 22.
The president of the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik (left), and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet near Moscow on September 22.

Reality has been hijacked. Facts are twisted. Confusion reigns. Welcome to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A referendum called by the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, over a seemingly innocent question -- whether January 9 should be celebrated as the entity's Statehood Day -- is set to take place on September 25.

Many observers in the Balkans see it as a dress rehearsal for an attempt to secede -- and thus the opening of a Pandora’s box in the region. The Bosnian Constitutional Court has asked Republika Srpska to reconsider the choice of January 9, because it excludes the entity’s non-Serbian population. It is not only an Orthodox holiday but marks the day in 1992 when a renegade Bosnian Serb assembly declared an independent Serbian state in Bosnia. Ignoring that recommendation, Dodik has decided to proceed with the referendum. He confirmed as much in an interview with RFE/RL.

In a video clip aired on Banjaluka TV, a young man named Stefan says that he was born during the war, that his father was killed, and that all he has left is his faith, his Orthodox holiday, and his homeland. The message is emotionally charged, but it strays from reality. In the clip, Stefan's Serbian father is a victim and a freedom fighter. Yet by far the biggest victims of the war were Bosnian Muslims. It appears that no one ever told Stefan who was responsible for wartime concentration camps, who engaged in systematic ethnic cleansing -- including the genocide at Srebrenica -- or which side took UN peacekeepers hostage.

However, Dodik's referendum was pushed out of the headlines this week by an interview given by Sefer Halilovic, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Army, that was being portrayed by some as the biggest threat to peace in Bosnia.

Talking to TV 1 in Sarajevo, Halilovic said the subversion of the Dayton peace accords -- for instance, through Dodik’s defiance of the Constitutional Court or his insistence on holding a referendum over January 9 -- was dangerous. Halilovic even suggested that Republika Srpska could disappear as a result (its existence being guaranteed by Dayton).

“We are not threatening anyone, but we will not allow anyone to break off a piece of Bosnia without trouble.... I am asking for them to think carefully [about what they are doing]. Milosevic is dead, the Yugoslav Army is no more, along with its thousands of tanks, armored vehicles.... Serbia cannot help Republika Srpska. We will not allow anyone to break up this country."

Sefer Halilovic is running a fringe political party that has a single deputy in the Bosnian parliament, yet his incendiary comments have made news..
Sefer Halilovic is running a fringe political party that has a single deputy in the Bosnian parliament, yet his incendiary comments have made news..

Halilovic is a retired general. He is running a fringe political party that has a single deputy in the Bosnian parliament. Even the Belgrade-based newspaper Blic admits that he is marginal character. Yet the Serbian foreign minister has chosen to make waves over Halilovic’s irresponsible comments, while Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was considering cutting short his visit to the United States.

Bosnian professor Enver Kazaz explained the storm over Halilovic’s comments in an interview:

“Dodik provoked Sefer Halilovic and exposed his political immaturity, which was then seized on by militant voices in Serbia as if the Bosnian Army was already massing along the border. In short, the current political establishment in the entire region is not to up to the job [and] is incapable of providing a vision of peace or contributing to the institutionalization of democratic practices.”

Vucic told B92 on September 22 that he had been receiving private messages from (unnamed) world leaders urging him "not to react to the rhetoric coming out of Bosnia-Herzegovina." Vucic, speaking from New York, claimed that he had been told to ignore Halilovic, who is "irrelevant" and "a madman," but that he remained worried by the lack of public condemnation of Halilovic’s comments and "because there are more than a few who share his attitude."

Vucic added that Serbia "respects Bosnia-Herzegovina’s integrity" but will "not allow Republika Srpska to be destroyed."

It is not clear how his comments might have been meant to be construed any differently -- or as any less as a veiled threat -- than Halilovic’s controversial remarks about protecting the integrity of Bosnia.

Meanwhile, Emir Kusturica, the controversial film director, wants to be sure that all the dirty laundry of the 1990s has been aired. In an interview with Srna, published by Nezavisne Novine, he said that the Bosniak member of the tripartite Bosnian Presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, is following in the footsteps of his father, wartime Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic.

Bakir Izetbegovic
Bakir Izetbegovic

Kusturica claims that Alija Izetbegovic’s rejection of the "Cutileiro plan" -- the Lisbon agreement that proposed the division of Bosnia into ethnic (Muslim, Serbian, and Croat) districts -- allegedly on the urging of U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmermann, was responsible for the outbreak of the war in Bosnia in 1992. "The same is true now. Everything that Bakir Izetbegovic is doing is aimed at destroying peace in Bosnia." He also called on all Serbs to come out to vote on September 25.

Half-truths are sometimes worse than lies.

In April 1992, Izetbegovic rejected the plan to divide the country along ethnic lines, but the war was started by the Bosnian Serb leadership -- including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic -- backed by the Yugoslav Army. What Kusturica did not say is that once Izetbegovic returned from another round of peace negotiations in Lisbon, on May 2, 1992, he was kidnapped by the Yugoslav Army at Sarajevo airport, the city was sealed off, and a full-scale war was unleashed by the Serb-led Yugoslav Army.

Kusturica, a Sarajevo native, was once celebrated as an award-winning film director. When he openly declared his support for Milosevic during the war in Bosnia, a former screenwriter, Abdulah Sidran, was under siege in Sarajevo. When people approached him to get his reaction, he stayed silent. When news arrived that Kusturica had been given a villa on the Montenegrin coast by Milosevic, Sidran was once again asked about it. His response was pithy: “The man is crazy. He gained a house and lost a city.”

Arguably, the storm over Halilovic's statement is entirely artificial. The September 25 referendum, on the other hand, is very real -- and potentially a real threat to Bosnia’s survival and to regional peace. Since the outcome is not in doubt, the choice of January 9 as Republika Srpska’s official Statehood Day -- a red-letter day in the Serbian nationalist calendar -- will increase the gap between Serbs and non-Serbs in Bosnia.

Also real is the fear deliberately being sown by politicians -- fear that could stalk voters in the local elections on October 2.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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