99.8% of voters in Bosnia & Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska supported the celebration of Republic Day, despite the holiday being declared unconstitutional by the state-level constitutional court, preliminary referendum results showed late on September 25.
The entity held the highly controversial referendum on September 25 defying a constitutional court ban. There is speculation that Republika Srpska is preparing to use the referendum as an excuse to secede from Bosnia, especially after the entity’s President Milorad Dodik’s recent attempt to secure Moscow’s backing at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Dodik has already hinted at this, saying that Republika Srpska will respond to violence with secession. However, such a move could seriously destabilise the region.
According to information based on 30.76% of votes counted, virtually all Serbs in Republika Srpska answered the question “Do you support the celebration of the Day of Republika Srpska on January 9” with “Yes”, the entity’s state broadcaster RTRS reported. Turnout has been estimated at between 56% and 60%. The referendum was boycotted by the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) living in Republika Srpska.
Republic Day will mark the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, shortly before the outbreak of the Bosnian civil war. At the time Bosnian Serbs claimed their republic was part of Yugoslavia – rather than Bosnia, which had declared its independence the year before.
January 9 is also an Orthodox religious holiday, the Day of St Stephen, which is not observed by Catholic Croats or Muslim Bosniaks. Given the overwhelmingly ethnic Serb population in Republika Srpska, the population was widely expected to vote in favour of the holiday.
Last year, Bosnia’s constitutional court decided that the celebration of Republic Day in the entity contains elements of discrimination and should not be held until it meets the criteria of international legislation for human rights.
Despite fears that the referendum would provoke violence, Bosnia remained peaceful during the day. Right after the closure of polling stations, Dodik attended a gathering of his party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), to celebrate the referendum and resume his campaign ahead of the upcoming local elections.
The fallout of the referendum is still unclear. However, some local analysts and politicians say that Republika Srpska’s top politicians could now face sanctions and international isolation.
The chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency Bakir Izetbegovic, who is also the leader of the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), said that now Dodik will have to face the consequences of the referendum. He described it as a “notorious example of a violation” of the Dayton peace agreement that ended the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Izetbegovic told reporters in Sarajevo that Bosnian judicial authorities and the international community should respond to the holding of the referendum.
Dodik said that Izetbegovic and foreigners will not decide on whether Republika Srpska will celebrate Republic Day. Three days before the referendum, Dodik got strong support from Putin for the referendum. Putin invited Republika Srpska’s president to Moscow, and Russia also refused to support declarations by the ambassadors of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), calling on the entity to respect the decisions of the constitutional court.
Ahead of the referendum, many international institutions put a strong pressure on Republika Srpska to back off and respect the constitutional court’s ban. PIC ambassadors issued two statements calling on Republika Srpska to respect the decisions of the constitutional court and scrap the referendum. In a joint statement in July, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and European Commissioner Johannes Hahn said the same. High Representative Valentin Inzko also called on all parties to respect the constitutional court’s decision.