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11 Jan 16

Why Bosnians Can’t Agree to Holiday Together

Danijel Kovacevic

Two decades after the end of the war, Bosnia’s ethnic groups and their political leaders are still unable or unwilling to agree on common national holidays, resulting in annual controversies.

In open and deliberate defiance of a Constitutional Court ruling and in spite of criticism from Western diplomats, Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska held the largest and the most lavish celebration ever of its ‘Republic Day’ at the weekend.

Tens of thousands of Republika Srpska flags lined the streets of all of the entity’s main cities, receptions were held for local sportsmen and ceremonies to bestow medals on distinguished citizens, and live concerts were staged for the masses.

Last but certainly not least was a flamboyant central event, where the ‘crème de la crème’ of Bosnian Serb and Serbian political, academic and other walks of life enjoyed sturdy political speeches and proud historical recitals, as well as singing songs and waving flags.

But what was missing were friends, neighbours or even relatives from other ethnic or religious groups - Bosniaks, Croats and others - many of whom do not appreciate the fact that January 9 is being celebrated as the RS national day.

On that day in 1992, the Bosnian Serb leadership declared an independent Serb republic, which a few months later was followed by the beginning of Bosnia's 1992-95 war and the bloody ethnic cleansing which effectively divided the country.

This date is also an Orthodox religious holiday, the day of St Stephen, which was the main reason why Bosnia's Constitutional Court ruled in November last year that the Republika Srpska ‘national day’ holiday was unconstitutional, since it discriminated against people of other ethnic and religious backgrounds.

This ruling outraged the entity’s leadership, which pledged to hold the biggest celebration ever.

The move underlined the deep political and ethnic divisions which still exist in Bosnia - a country which, two decades after the war, still can’t reach an agreement on its national holidays. The way the things are developing, no such agreement is likely anytime soon.

During these 20 years, political leaders only managed to agree to mark three non-religious holidays throughout the country - the New Year on January 1, Labour Day on May 1, and European Day and the Day of Victory over Fascism on May 9.

They did however manage to agree on religious holidays. In both of Bosnia’s entities, as well as in the Brcko District, everyone has four days off during the year for his or her religious holidays, and can use them to celebrate Catholic or Orthodox Christmas and Easter, Bayram, and/or any other religious holiday of their choosing.

But the biggest dispute has always been over the marking of National Day of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnia's Independence Day and the National Day or RS.

People living in the country’s Bosniak and Croat-dominated Federation entity, as well as those working for state institutions, mark November 25 as the official Statehood Day of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It commemorates the day in 1943 when the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was established as the highest governing body of the anti-fascist movement in the country, thus becoming the bearer of Bosnian statehood.

Republika Srpska officials do not recognise that ‘old’ Bosnia and Herzegovina, but only the ‘new’ one which was established by the signing of the Dayton peace accord on November 21, 1995, which ended the war.

Republika Srpska celebrates a holiday on November 21, but not particularly because of its significance for Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole, but for its own reasons, since the Dayton agreement was the first official document to be recognised both locally and internationally that legalised the existence and the name of the entity.

November 21, however, is not officially celebrated in the Federation.

People living in the Federation, as well as those working in state institutions, do however celebrate Bosnia’s Independence Day on March 1, marking the day of the referendum in 1992 when the majority of Bosnian citizens voted for independence from the former Yugoslavia.

Yet many of their Bosnian Serb neighbours, friends and relatives do not celebrate this day, since it many Bosnian Serbs boycotted the 1992 referendum because they objected to Bosnia's secession from Yugoslavia.

And so Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, as well as their political leaders have remained focused on their own ‘truths’ for the past 20 years and blind to the past traumas and still-existing fears of their countrymen of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

This problem has prevented proper reconciliation and thus enabled the deepening of the country’s political crisis, which in recent years has resulted in a serious economic and social downturn.

Indeed, economic woes may be the only issue common and powerful enough to help different groups in Bosnia understand each other’s fears - just as they are pretty much the only thing that can persuade Bosnians to ignore their own national holidays and go to work when everyone else has the day off.

I saw an example of this on January 9, when my neighbour Darko, a 30-year old mechanic from Banja Luka, came out of his house early in the morning and started cleaning fresh snow from his old and battered VW Golf.

It was Saturday, Republic Day in Republika Srpska, and our street was looking festive, decked with the entity’s flags - but Darko was still expected to turn up for work.

“This [holiday] doesn’t apply for me,” he told me. “I work in a privately-owned company, my boss has put up the flag on the building and said that we had to work like any other day.”

He brushed off the last snow, sat behind the wheel, waved to me, smiled, and with irony in his voice, wished me a “happy holiday” before driving off.

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