On 25 September, the semi-autonomous region of Republika Srpska (RS), the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), held a referendum on whether to establish 9 January, the day of its creation in 1992, as a national holiday. Although the Constitutional Court of BiH had declared the consultation illegal, 55.8% of the Serbs of Bosnia participated and 99.8% of them voted in favour, according to the data released by RS’s authorities. The initiative is considered to have defied the 1995 Dayton agreement. Europe Insight has asked three regional experts if it’s really the case.
Christopher Bennett, Analyst and Former Deputy High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Yes, the referendum was the latest step towards a potential secession and, yes, it is destabilising the country. But there have been many other steps beforehand. In the last 10 years, the situation has got slightly worse, slightly less secure. There were several moments following the return of Milorad Dodik to power in 2006. At that time, there was the Montenegro referendum and the first thing Dodik started saying was that they wanted a similar poll.
Subsequently, Dodik has systematically undermined all institutions that he could not control. In particular, this includes the judiciary, the prosecutor’s office and the Constitutional court. His explanation was that there had been foreign presence in those institutions. Even if in the entity’s court there was no foreign presence because in 2009 the foreign prosecutors and judges were withdrawn from the court.
At that time, Dodik was under investigation for massive fraud but then the High Representative did not renew the mandate of the international prosecutors and judges that worked in the judiciary on serious and organized crimes. The High Representative nevertheless extended the mandate of international prosecutors and judges working on war crimes for three years. But after that period, even they left. Another case is the Electricity Transmission Company, Transco (Milorad Dodik decided against its privatisation. – Ed.).
If we look at the recent developments, there is a case involving the court’s ruling in August. It ordered RS to register the properties that had belonged to the Yugoslav Army around a municipality in north-east Bosnia. Dodik said no. Finally, there is also the ruling of the Constitutional court in November last year on RS’s national day. The court decided that, since RS and the Bosnian Federation are multiethnic, this holiday would discriminate non-Serb citizens.
In fact, there are two institutions that can interpret the legality of a referendum in Bosnia and Herzegovina: one is the High Representative and the other is the Constitutional court. Both said that it was illegal.
On the contrary, Dodik is making a case for a different interpretation of Bosnia structures, mainly arguing that Bosnia-Herzegovina was created by the union of Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Federation. He says that RS decided to join Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 and this goes against what is written in the Dayton agreement, that Bosnia and Herzegovina inherited the integrity of the territory and its sovereignty.
This is why Bosniak critics are saying that Dodik is destroying the Dayton agreement and that, if the agreement is destroyed, then it should be reconsidered that RS didn’t exist before the war. This argument is destabilising the country. Moreover, Dodik’s party also adopted a resolution this year that stated that they would celebrate an independence referendum in 2018 if RS’s powers that Dodik says were taken away with the Dayton agreement are not restored.
Velma Šarić, Founder and Director, The Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) in Sarajevo
I consider the referendum in Republika Srpska totally illegal and unnecessary. I believe that this referendum is nothing more than a way for Dodik to draw public attention from corruption and criminal cases, in which he is involved. Given the fact the international community strongly disapproves this referendum and opposition parties in RS also considered it a weak political move, the referendum was just another political manipulation by Dodik’s government and absolutely not a unifying voice of the Bosnian Serbs’ community in Republika Srpska.
However, the national rhetoric surrounding the referendum needs to be addressed properly in order to prevent similar events in the future, and to boost peace-building and reconciliation process. Otherwise, referendums like this one are a threat since they can in any way put Republika Srpska on track for secession from BiH.
Denis Džidić, Editor, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina
I do not think that this referendum puts RS ‘on track for secession’. I think the leadership of RS is aware that a more significant referendum would be promptly stopped by the international community. High tensions around a referendum that concerns a relatively benign issue such as national holiday show just how important issues of transitional justice are in Bosnia. It’s important to note that this referendum was not supported even by Belgrade, so a referendum on secession would not certainly happen.
There were no extraordinary ethnic incidents in the past weeks, as more people understand that this was a political ploy used by RS parties before the upcoming local elections which are due in October. This is not to say that there were not a lot of rash statements from politicians both in Bosnia and Serbia.
Leading political parties are basing their program on ethnic divisions, especially in election year. We have always had war-mongering and recalling unprosecuted war crimes to make sure people vote for “their” ethnic bloc. I presume we will see a lot of such statements and growing tensions in the media in the coming weeks, and all that will dissipate in October.
We saw that Milorad Dodik met Vladimir Putin and it shows us that the diplomatic activity was real in regard to this referendum. The international actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina were active through the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) and through their own embassies and representatives. In the PIC, all embassies except for Russia asked for the referendum to be stopped. The Office of the High representative, EU and US embassies came out repeatedly with statements that the referendum was illegal and should not go ahead, but they stopped short of actually forcing its end – what they could have done through the High Representative.