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Referendum in BiH: Opening of a Pandora’s box or a continuation of post-Dayton stalemate?

Milorad Dodik, the leader of Bosnian Serbs and the current president of Republika Srpska, has a thing for referenda. The first time he came up with the idea to hold one was, when following the Montenegro and Kosovo cases, he figured out that independence is still possible in the Balkans and that inviolability of frontiers stemming from the Helsinki Final Act is not a mantra anymore. The 2011 call for a referendum on independence marked the beginning of an open confrontation between Dodik and the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko.  International commentators talked about Dodik bringing Bosnia to the brink of war. Following the expected deadlock at the UN Security Council (with Russia backing Dodik’s claim), Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) entered the negotiation. The referendum was called off and the situation reverted to the status quo.

October 19, 2016 - Věra Stojarová - Articles and Commentary

Milorad Dodik

In 2015, Dodik decided to challenge the authority of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which includes international judges and a war crimes section, and claimed that the State Court was biased against the Bosnian Serbs. He also questioned the authority of the State Court over the inhabitants of Republika Srpska. The National Assembly voted in favour of holding a referendum, expecting that it would take place in November 2015. Dodik´s move stirred an emotional reaction in the young republic and was met with opposition both internationally and domestically. The international community, led by the EU, referred to the violation of the Dayton Peace Agreement, stating that “such a referendum would challenge the cohesion, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina” and that “it would also risk undermining the efforts to improve the socio-economic situation of Bosnia and Herzegovina citizens and to make further progress in EU integration”. The lack of consensus among the Bosnian Serbs led to the referendum being indefinitely postponed and the situation saved.

The emotions erupted again with the September 25th 2016 referendum on the National Day of Republika Srpska. Ever since the foundation of the republic on January 9th 1992, the Day of Republika Srpska was celebrated on that date. In 2013 Bakir Izetbegović, the Bosniak member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, brought the case to the Constitutional Court claiming that the National Day was unconstitutional as the three constituent groups of Bosnia and Herzegovina have to be treated equally. Izetbegović also based his argument on the fact that the date is St. Stephan’s Day celebrated as official slava of Republika Srpska, allowing for the use of religious symbols and iconography discriminating against the non-Serb population.

The ruling, which came in November 2015, stated that the celebration of the National Day was indeed unconstitutional, and that Republika Srpska was discriminating against people of other ethnic and religious backgrounds who live in Bosnia. The Serbian authorities were therefore asked to change the National Day. Following the decision, Republika Srpska’s Peoples Assembly appealed against the ruling and organised the celebrations of the National Day in January 2016 regardless, with attendance of the Serbian Prime Minister Alexandar Vučić. Subsequently, Dodik called for a referendum challenging the final authority and jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court, which rejected the appeal and ruled in favor of a temporary ban for holding referenda. Simultaneously Dodik called for a referendum contesting the Constitutional Court. Theoretically, Valentin Inzko could have tried to block the referendum, but his decision would have to be approved by the Peace Implementation Council that was established in 1995 to oversee the Peace Process. Iznko was aware of Russia being a firm supporter of Dodik and would block any decision against the plebiscite. At the end of August, the police forces of Republika Srpska decided to hold joint exercises with their Serbian counterparts while war veterans asked for live ammunition for their own war games which also helped to spread the fear among the people.

Despite the international pressure, Dodik decided to hold the referendum on the National Day prior to local elections a week later. The plebiscite question read: “Do you consider January 9th suitable as Statehood Day for Republika Srpska?” 99.8 per cent voted in favor. The tabloid media was full of prediction of an upcoming war stirred by the Serbs and the international bodies talked about Bosnia’s biggest existential crisis, an attempt to destabilise the country and the opening of a Pandora’s box with an unknown outcome.

With the referendum, Serbian politicians from Bosnia openly challenged the authority of the Constitutional Court and by doing so breached the Dayton agreement. Disregard for the binding decisions of the Bosnian Constitutional Court is nothing new in the country, but this time it was the president who openly challenged the post-Dayton settlement, which went unpunished. The EU as well as the United States have been preoccupied with their own affairs and did not have the time to deal with internal issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is nothing new in Dodik’s pushing the boundaries further, in fact it perfectly matches his strive for the referendum on the independence of Republika Srpska. We can only hope, that the presidential election in the US will soon be over and that the EU will soon address its Brexit and migration problems to find some time to revisit the Dayton Peace Agreement. The final settlement of the state of affairs in the Balkans is yet to be made.

The results of the local election, which took place a week after the referendum, showed that Dodik succeeded in his politics of stirring nationalist emotions and distracting voters’ attention from the bread-and-butter issues of daily citizens’ lives. The Alliance of Independent Social-Democrats led by Dodik won in around 30 per cent more municipalities than in the last election. One should not forget that the main goal of the party is the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia, while their opponents from the Alliance for Changes accuse Dodik of failing to address the real problems: poverty, corruption and a not-functioning state. Nevertheless, the real winner of the election was Dodik and, indeed, nationalism. As the political analyst from Sarajevo, Gojko Berić, stated: “there are no real prospects of elimination of the main state disrupter, the former leftist and opponent of Karadžić, who turned to be radical nationalist and protector of Karadžić´s evil heritage”. Similarly, the winners in the second entity were the ethnic parties.

Two events attracted the media attention: first, Fikret Abdić, a convicted war criminal, was elected a mayor in Velika Kladuša. This prominent Bosniak businessman and politician became famous for building Agrokomerc – one of the biggest conglomerates in Yugoslavia back in 1980. During the war in Bosnia, he was opposing the official Bosnian government and was cooperating with the Serbs. Abdić was sentenced for war crimes and spent ten years in prison. Second, in Srebrenica for the first time since the war an ethnic Serb won the local mayor election by a small margin (51 percent for Grujicić to 48 for Bosniak Camil Duraković). The election in Srebrenica was very tense, with the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) announcing that no Serb should be elected mayor of Srebrenica. The supporters of both mayoral candidates had to be separated by a police cordon and new tensions are likely to arise, as it would be hard for an ethnic Serb to talk about the Srebrenica genocide.

Moreover, the election was accompanied by vote-buying. In the Stolac municipality the election will have to be repeated due to the physical attack on the president of the municipal electoral board. The only municipality where no elections were held was Mostar, as the political parties were not able to reach an agreement on local administration. Nevertheless, this was nothing new as the last election in the town was held in 2008.

Both the local election and the referendum have shown that the ever-present arguments about the guilt, victimisation, historical truth and ethnic groups, rather than state interests, dominate the political agenda in Bosnia and Herzegovina and are used by the politicians to maintain power. One might say – why not give them independence if they want it so much? But it is not that easy: the Croats within Bosnia and Herzegovina also have their demands. To succumb to the pressure could lead to a snowball effect, which could further result in Vojvodina claiming independence from Serbia, Northern Kosovo wanting to be part of Serbia and Albanians from the Preševo valley demanding to be annexed by Kosovo. This all could also destabilise the situation in Western Macedonia. Therefore, the politicians from Republika Srpska cannot get what they want and forever profit from their nationalist slogans. Until Bosnian politicians realise that they should focus on people’s needs rather than just strive for power, Bosnia will remain in the same deadlock it has been in since 1995. The other option is to allow the independence of Republika Srpska and hope for peace and a better future.

However, it is worth noting that there are people in Bosnia and Herzegovina who are able to make fun of the current situation. Satirist Njuz website came up with the news that Dodik is planning to call for a new referendum which would decide what to do with the results of the previous one. “Referendum experts think that the answers of the people would vary from I have no idea and What are you asking me, mate? to What do you need it for? Unofficial sources claim that the Republic of Serbia is planning to organise a referendum with a question: Did you understand what is the referendum in Republika Srpska about?

Věra Stojarová is an academic researcher and assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Masaryk University, Brno. Her professional interests include nationalism and far right parties, mainly in the Western Balkans. In 2004, she was awarded a grant to undertake research at the J.F. Kennedy Institute in Berlin. She also received a grant from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for a study stay in Heidelberg in 2005-2006, and was awarded a Robert Mellon fellowship at IWM Institute in Vienna in 2009. 

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