News 09 Feb 16

Bosnian Serb Leader Postpones Controversial Referendum

Facing growing criticism, the president of Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska postponed a planned referendum which was intended to challenge the authority of the state judiciary.

Danijel Kovacevic
BIRN
Banja Luka
The president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik. Photo: SNSD.

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik yielded to growing internal and international pressure on Monday and announced he was postponing the disputed referendum which had threatened to raise ethnic tensions in the country.

Dodik said the referendum - which was intended to challenge the authority of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s state court and the country’s international overseer, the Office of the High Representative - will be postponed until all Bosnian Serb parties agree to it.

“All this time we have been searching for a consensus [on this referendum] at the level of Republika Srpska,” Dodik told a press conference in Banja Luka.

“We will not go into the referendum without a consensus,” he added.

Dodik’s announcement came as a result of weeks of intense local, regional and international negotiations and pressure which left the Bosnian Serb leader cornered, a senior EU official told BIRN on Tuesday.

“This may very well be the end of Dodik’s political career, yet on the other hand Bosnian Serb opposition is not any better,” the EU official said on condition of anonymity.

Bosnian Serb opposition parties, including some of Dodik’s political allies, opposed the referendum idea, while EU and US officials warned Dodik that such referendum would be illegal and could lead to personal sanctions against him, his family and supporters.

Bosniak political leaders also have repeatedly warned that it could destabilise the situation in the country.

According to Banja Luka-based political analyst Tanja Topic, the key element in persuading Dodik to put the referendum on hold was the role played Serbia.

Both Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic declined to support the referendum and openly called on Dodik to shelve the idea.

“It is obvious that he [Dodik] is seeking an exit strategy,” Topic told BIRN.

Dodik launched the referendum initiative in July last year, because of alleged bias in war crimes cases against Serb victims.

But his move was perceived both locally and internationally as a political ploy to draw public attention away from the worsening economic and social situation in Republika Srpska, as well as a part of his preparations for local elections in 2016.

“I thought from the beginning that this referendum would never be organised,” Milos Solaja, a professor of political science at the University of Banja Luka, told BIRN.

However Solaja said that the threat to hold the vote did have an impact by creating “a situation in which we are talking seriously about problems of the judicial sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

He also warned that the referendum idea could be revived if Dodik sees it as politically useful in the future.

“This referendum has not been eliminated, it remains as a menace and it can be reintroduced when the authorities of Republika Srpska think it will be more favourable for them,” he said.

It remains unclear how the referendum initiative will be legally dealt with now, since it was already approved by the Republika Srpska National Assembly, cleared by the Republika Srpska Constitutional Court and was awaiting Dodik’s approval for the publishing in the entity’s Official Gazette, which would complete the legal process and make the decision to hold it binding.

It is also unclear what kind of consequences this latest development will have on the Serb-led entity’s political scene, which has been on the brink of collapse since the general elections in October 2014, as different parties - as well as different factions within different parties - have been fighting each other for control over positions of power.

However despite the potential blow to his authority, Dodik used the same press conference to announce a new initiative, indicating that he does not see himself as a spent force.

His new initiative is to abolish the House of Peoples in the Republika Srpska National Assembly - the parliamentary chamber that plays key role in protecting the rights of non-Serb ethnic groups in the entity.

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