feature 01 Mar 17

Independence Day Events Expose Bosnia’s Deep Divide

Official commemorations of the anniversary of the March 1992 referendum that paved the way for Bosnia’s independence from Yugoslavia have triggered a new legal dispute in the deeply divided state.

Danijel Kovacevic BIRN Banja Luka
Bosniak presidency member Bakir Izetbegovic (far left) marks independence day in Sarajevo. Photo: Anadolu.

As Bosnia and Herzegovina marks another Independence Day on Wednesday, it will be observed in only one half of the country - the Bosniak-Croat-dominated entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In the other half, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, RS, March 1 is an ordinary working day.

The holiday bears further evidence of the deep divisions in the country and serves to underline that - despite the fact that two decades have passed since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, bringing an end to the war in Bosnia in the mid-90s - disputes over the state's very foundations continue to exist.

The Bosniak member of the tripartite state presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, commemorated the occasion by laying flowers at a memorial in Sarajevo on Wednesday. “We paid a great price, but we won the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he said.

But Bosnian Serb leaders largely ignore the holiday. Most RS residents are not even aware that March 1 is Bosnian independence day.

“I don't really care about it. It is their holiday. Let them celebrate it but they also have to leave us alone and let us celebrate our holidays,” Stevan, a retired truck driver from Bijeljina in north-eastern RS, told BIRN.

The 1992 Independence Vote

Bosnia’s Independence Day commemorates the referendum held between February 29 and March 1, 1992.

It was held at the recommendation of an international arbitration commission for the former Yugoslavia, and its outcome was the basis for the recognition of the country's independence by the international community.

Close to 65 per cent of the country's citizens took part in the 1992 vote and 99 per cent of those who went to the polls voted for Bosnia and Herzegovina's independence.

Despite the opposition of Serb leaders, the Bosnian parliament declared the referendum outcome valid and binding on March 6 the same year and the EU recognized Bosnia as an independent country on April 6, 1992.


“Not sure what to celebrate,” said Dragana, an administrative worker from Banja Luka, the RS capital in the north-west of the entity.

“That was the day when the war started, when we started to kill each other,” she added.

On Tuesday, Nermin Niksic, president of the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina, SDP, congratulated Mladen Ivanic, chairman of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and all the country's citizens on the occasion of Independence Day.

But Ivanic, who is the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, described the greeting as an insult to RS.

“For me, March 1 is the day when the war started and the day when the first Serb was killed in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Ivanic was quoted as saying on Tuesday by the RS news agency SRNA.

Ivanic is referring to the murder of Nikola Gardovic at a wedding party on March 1, 1992, outside the Old Orthodox Church in Bascarsija in central Sarajevo.

“March 1 is the date the ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Sarajevo commenced”, RS President Milorad Dodik told the SRNA earlier.

Rancour among RS politicians over Bosnia’s disputed Independence Day is such that the authorities there have challenged the legality of the March 1 holiday.

In October 2016, the RS parliament filed a motion to Bosnia’s state-level Constitutional Court claiming the March 1 holiday is unconstitutional because it is not “representative of the will of all three [of the country’s] constitutive peoples [Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs]”.

The Constitutional Court has not yet ruled on the case.

RS President Dodik filed the motion after the Constitutional Court ruled that the Serb-dominated entity’s annual holiday – the Day of Republika Srpska that is celebrated every January 9 - was discriminatory against non-Serbs in the entity because it was also a Serbian Orthodox religious holiday.

It was on January 9, 1992 that Bosnia’s Serbs declared the foundation of Republika Srpska, which the country’s Bosniaks see as a precursor to the war that broke out soon afterward.

After the Constitutional Court declared the January 9 holiday unconstitutional, the RS conducted a referendum on the holiday which was also declared unconstitutional.

The State Prosecutors Office launched the investigation on a referendum. Dodik – and a number of other prominent Bosnian Serbs – was questioned by prosecutors over his alleged failure to execute a decision by the Bosnian Constitutional Court.

The crime carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years' imprisonment.

On Monday, Dodik said that he has information that he will be indicted later this month in connection with the referendum case. He denies any wrongdoing.

He will not be in the country for this year’s March 1 holiday, as he will be meeting Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.

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