Tensions in Bosnia & Herzegovina escalated significantly on September 20 as wartime Bosnian Muslim commander Sefer Halilovic said that if Republika Srpska holds the planned referendum on the Republic Day celebration, this will unpack the Dayton peace agreement and could lead to war.
The referendum on whether to make January 9 a public holiday in Republika Srpska is due to take place on September 25, seriously raising tensions within Bosnia due to the day’s connection to the entity’s secessionist ambitions. Although the state-level constitutional court has temporarily suspended the planned referendum, preparations are continuing in Republika Srpska.
“After the referendum, the Dayton peace agreement will no longer be valid, therefore we return to the constitution of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and after that may God help us all… Republika Srpska can hold out for 10 to 15 days in a potential clash,” Halilovic, former general and commanding officer of the so-called Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina controlled by Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, told TV1 late on September 19, according to the Croatian Media Service.
Halilovic, who is also the leader of the nationalist Bosnia and Herzegovina Patriotic Party BPS-Sefer Halilovic, added that there are many people from both entities – Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation – who are ready to start a war.
“We do not threaten anyone but we will not allow anyone to take away even a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina without a fight,” Halilovic also said.
His statements provoked very strong reactions from both Republika Srpska and Serbia. Serbia’s government issued a statement from Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic who said that Halilovic’s statements were the biggest threat to peace and stability in the region and should be taken seriously.
“Halilovic is not only a former wartime [Bosnian] Muslim commander, he is also the informal spokesman of Bakir Izetbegovic [the Bosniak member of Bosnia & Herzegovina's tripartite presidency]. Halilovic speaks what Izetbegovic thinks. That is why his threats should be taken seriously, because they show that war plans exist,” Dacic was quoted as saying in the statement.
Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic also said that Belgrade will protect Republika Srpska and will seek to protect the peace and integrity of Bosnia.
“Serbia does not threaten anyone with war, Serbia does not call for and does not want clashes, but Serbia has an obligation to protect its people according to the Dayton agreement, as well as according to every legal and moral law,” daily Nezavisne Novine quoted Vucic as saying.
Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik also slammed Halilovic's comments. “Halilovic is an empty blackjack burting into space! This is another in a series of warmongering statements of the failed general… who wants to make war again,” Nezavisne Novine quoted Dodik as saying.
Local analysts also believe that Halilovic is just using the current situation to gain attention and supporters rather than seriously threatening Republika Srpska.
At the same time, the ambassadors of the Peace Implementation Council’s (PIC) Steering Board issued a statement calling on Republika Srpska to respect the constitutional court’s ban.
“Decisions taken by the BiH Constitutional Court must be respected. The authority of the Court is clearly defined in Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Agreement which gives jurisdiction to the Court to resolve disputes between levels of government,” the statement said.
It added that Republika Srpska has no legal basis to hold the referendum on September 25.
“We once again urge the RS authorities not to hold the referendum. Ambassadors of the PIC Steering board reiterate that no referendum can change the final and binding nature of decisions of the BiH Constitutional Court,” the statement reads.
Russia did not sign the statement, according to Nezavisne Novine. Russia did not back an earlier declaration from the PIC, which also called on Republika Srpska to give up on plans to hold the referendum. PIC is an international body comprising 55 countries, in charge of monitoring and implementing the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement.
January 9 is the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia & 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 also an Orthodox religious holiday, the Day of St Stephen, which is not observed by Catholic Croats or Muslim Bosniaks. 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.
In a joint statement in July, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and European Commissioner Johannes Hahn said that Bosnia should respect the court’s decision and act accordingly. High Representative Valentin Inzko also has called on all parties to respect the constitutional court’s decision.