Analysis 08 Jan 17

Bosnian Serb ‘Statehood Day’ Celebration Divides Country

Defying Bosnia’s state authorities, the EU and US, the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska is staging a lavish celebration of its disputed ‘statehood’ holiday, despite a ban by the Constitutional Court.

Danijel Kovacevic BIRN Banja Luka
Presiident Milorad Dodik and guests mark the Day of Republika Srpska in 2016. Photo: RS Presidency.

Ignoring warnings from Bosniak and international officials, Bosnian Serbs are marking the Day of Republika Srpska on Monday, underlining ethnic and political divisions in the country and defying a state-level Constitutional Court ruling that the annual holiday is discriminatory and therefore illegal.

The biggest-ever celebration of the Day of Republika Srpska is being organised in spite of the fact that Bosnia's Constitutional Court ruled last year that holding the annual holiday on January 9 was discriminatory against non-Serbs in RS because it is also a Serbian Orthodox religious holiday - the day of St Stephen, who is the patron saint of RS.

Despite the court ruling, and in spite of strong objections from Bosniak, US and EU officials, the RS authorities held a referendum on September 25 last year seeking public support for the Day of Republika Srpska. The referendum was also subsequently ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court.

The fact that Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic is attending has contributed to the tensions surrounding the event, despite the fact that Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic will not be there.

The programme of events started over the weekend, with RS officials holding official receptions for their local and regional guests, but the main part of the celebration was scheduled for Monday - the anniversary of the declaration of Republika Srpska in 1992, which some Bosniaks see as a prelude to the war that broke out three months afterwards.

The programme includes various performances, meetings and other events, but the central public focus of the celebration was set to be a Russian-style parade in which hundreds of police officers, firefighters, members of the Civil Protection force and even bikers were to march or drive along the main street of RS’s administrative centre, Banja Luka.

"We are organising a parade [the likes of which] has not been seen in RS," RS Interior Minister Dragan Lukac told local media at the end of last week.

Lukac said that the organisation of the event will be a major challenge for local police, since officers will participate in the parade but at the same time provide security. More than 1,000 RS policemen will be on security duty in Banja Luka, he added.

The programme will also include several hundred artists, children's choirs, ensembles, musical groups and local soloists, culminating in a gala performance with patriotic songs and speeches at the Borik sports hall. In the evening, entertainment will be provided by an orchestra of 100 trumpets on the central town square, the organisers told BIRN.

But what remains uncertain is what kind of financial, political or ethnic fallout the staging of the event will have on RS, on Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole, as well as on relations between Bosnia and Serbia.

Nikolic’s visit tests relations

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic. Photo: Beta.

Serbian President Nikolic and several ministers from the Belgrade government were scheduled to participate in the event, although Serbian premier Vucic dodged the issue of whether he would attend as he is making an official visit to India.

"Those [Serbian officials] who want to go [to Banja Luka] will go, and those who do not want to go, will not go. That is the free choice for members of the Serbian government. I am sure that a considerable number [of them] will attend the celebrations," Vucic said last week, adding that Serbia supports the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the integrity of RS.

The news that Nikolic was to attend did not go down well with Bosniak officials in Sarajevo, however.

The Bosniak member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency and the head of the main Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, SDA, Bakir Izetbegovic, called on Nikolic to rethink his decision.

"Regarding his visit to Banja Luka, I publicly ask him to consider this matter. He is always welcome, but for the sake of better relations, I ask him to consider some of the facts," Izetbegovic told N1 TV.

But Nikolic said he had no intention of cancelling his planned visit to Banja Luka.

"Of course I'll go," he told Serbian media, and added: "I do not accept this kind of blackmail."

Sarajevo-based political analyst Adnan Huskic said however that such an emotional reaction from the Bosniak leadership "shows a lack of political understanding".

He argued that such strong reactions from Bosniaks exacerbate the radical attitudes of RS President Milorad Dodik.

Nikolic was supposed to pay an official visit to Sarajevo in February, on the invitation of the Serb member of Bosnia's presidency, Mladen Ivanic, but his participation in the Day of Republika Srpska celebrations could lead to the cancellation of his trip by either side.

This would not be the first time that the Serbian president has cancelled a trip to Bosnia. After the arrest of Bosnian Army commander Naser Oric for alleged crimes against Serbs in Srebrenica, Izetbegovic in June 2015 suggested that Nikolic cancel a scheduled visit to the country.

Deep internal divisions exposed

Besides its effect on the ever-tense bilateral relations between Sarajevo and Belgrade, the lavish celebration of the Day of Republika Srpska has also threatened to deepen Bosnia's internal political and ethnic divisions.

Some Bosnian Serb officials argued that RS has done its bit to accommodate the decision of the state Constitutional Court, as well as the concerns of the Bosniaks and Croats who live in RS.

In December, the RS National Assembly adopted a Law on the Day of Republika Srpska, which stipulates that January 9 is a secular holiday and that the RS government will decide how it will be marked. Bosniak MPs boycotted the session when the law was adopted.

As a result of the law, the Day of Republika Srpska will not include a religious ceremony, but Bosniak officials still complained about it and few non-Serbs are participating in the celebrations.

Additional disputes ensued in recent weeks over Dodik's request for the Bosnian Army’s Third Infantry Regiment, whose members come from RS, to participate in the parade.

The request sparked strong condemnations from Bosniak politicians.

“I expect from armed forces, the management structures and the soldiers, to respect the decision of the Constitutional Court and not to engage in activities that can take them to the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Sefik Dzaferovic, the chairman of Bosnia's House of Representatives, an SDA member, told media last Wednesday, implying that any soldier who decides to participate could suffer legal consequences.

However, Bosnia's Defence Minister Marina Pendes, from the main Croat party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ - which in recent months has moved closer to Dodik - decided that the military orchestra from the Third Infantry Regiment could participate in some of the programme.

This decision was then withdrawn on Friday, after Bosnia's presidency failed to agree on the participation of any armed forces units in events linked with the disputed holiday, and after the commander of NATO's headquarters in Bosnia, General Giselle Wilz, warned that any military personnel participating in the event could face disciplinary measures including dismissal from the forces.

But that was not enough for Dodik, who on Friday said that he still expected to see the Third Infantry Regiment as well as its orchestra line up on the main square on Monday.

“If the Third Infantry Regiment does not participate in the parade, we will consider that the Bosnian Armed Forces are hostile to Republika Srpska,” Dodik told the RS news agency last Wednesday.

Dodik also used the situation to put pressure on the Bosnian Serb opposition, especially the Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency, Mladen Ivanic, who comes from the opposition. Dodik told media he expected Ivanic to issue an order that the entire regiment must participate in the parade.

Ivanic told local media meanwhile that attempts to block the celebration of the Day of Republika Srpska and to prevent the participation of the regiment were likely to further destabilise the situation in the country.

“This is a continuation of the careless policy that is evident in Sarajevo, and I think this will be a prelude to a serious escalation of the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The authors of these decisions hit on what is most important to the Serb people, and that is their pride,” Ivanic told media.

Political analyst Adnan Huskic said that this was potentially the most dangerous part of the whole dispute over the Day of Republika Srpska.

“If they [Bosnia's defence ministry] allow the military to be part of the celebration, than the question is, who controls the armed forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina? And it then becomes a question of security of the country,” Huskic told BIRN.

Referendum threat overshadows celebration

A poster urging people to vote in last September's referendum. Photo: Beta/Radivoje Pavicic.

Tensions caused by Monday's celebrations were also fuelled by Dodik's recent statement that he was contemplating whether to call for another referendum which he said would be “very important for the future of RS”.

He refused to provide further details, but some local and international experts suspected that he was talking about a referendum that would challenge the existence of Bosnia's Constitutional Court, which Dodik already initiated a year ago but then had to halt due to the lack of support from Serbia.

Other experts feared he was talking about a referendum on the secession of RS from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which Dodik has pledged to hold by the end of 2018.

Dodik said he will provide further details about his plans after he attempts to gather support from Bosnian Serb opposition parties.

"I am calling for national unity. If they don't accept the invitation, we'll go ahead [with the referendum] without them," he said.

The RS opposition has so far restrained from commenting, saying it did not know what Dodik was talking about.

Yet many local experts and opposition leaders have mocked Dodik for his frequent toying with the referendum idea, which they see as his preferred tool for confounding the RS opposition and securing more support before elections.

Huskic even suggested that Monday's high-profile celebration was Dodik's attempt to gloss over the weak turnout at the September referendum.

According to official RS data, some 56 per cent of RS citizens came out to vote in the referendum, yet various local and international sources told BIRN that there were clear indications that the results were rigged and that actual turnout was barely over 40 per cent.

“This celebration is an attempt to compensate for the fact that the entire experiment with the referendum did not pass off well,” Huskic said.

“Poorly organised, with a low turnout, and relations with Serbia brought to the lowest level, a criminal investigation - all these are consequences of the referendum that Milorad Dodik is now trying to compensate for with a grand celebration,” he added.

Banja Luka-based analyst and blogger Srdjan Puhalo told BIRN that Dodik might hold a referendum questioning the authority of the state Constitutional Court in 2017, but not one on the secession of RS.

“He will save the heavy artillery - the secession referendum - for 2018, according to his party platform. And we should not forget that 2018 is election year in Bosnia,” Puhalo said.

“He managed to get away with the referendum on Day of Republika Srpska. Now he will try to push a bit more to test the determination of the international community,” he argued.

“After this, we can expect another referendum, then another, until the secession referendum - which is, I believe, his final goal.”

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus