Bosnia & Herzegovina’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska held its biggest ever celebration of the controversial Republic Day on January 9.
The Republic Day holiday — which has been banned by Bosnia’s state-level constitutional court — will inevitably raise tensions in Bosnia and most likely will be used by all parties in the election campaign this year.
Bosnian Serbs have frequently used the question of secession from Bosnia to gain more votes, while Bosniak parties will use the same issue to boost support from Muslims by raising the fear of instability and clashes or even war. The same tactic has been used by nationalistic parties in the past and has successfully diverted people’s attention from the high level of unemployment, poverty, lack of reforms and widespread corruption.
Despite the ban by the state-level constitutional court, the number of participants in Republic Day events reached around 1,800 people in addition to the crowds watching, according to daily Nezavisne Novine.
Republic Day marks 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 Orthodox religious holiday, the Day of St Stephen, which is not observed by Catholic Croats or Muslim Bosniaks. In 2015, 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.
Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, once again demanded more autonomy for the Serb entity within Bosnia, and threatened to revive the idea of a referendum on independence.
“The Serb people have two states: Serbia and Republika Srpska, and we want to be one,” Balkan Insight quoted Dodik as saying.
In June, Dodik said that the entity will not hold a referendum on its independence in 2018 as initially planned. He had previously said many times that the entity would hold an independence referendum in 2018, using this topic as a tool to raise his popularity and could use it once again ahead of this year’s general and presidential elections.
Former Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, who received a decoration from Dodik, also weighed into the debate, controversially talking of independence for Republika Srpska and its potential unification with Serbia.
"If the road to our unification is your autonomy and independence, I wish you autonomy and independence, from the heart … There will be another hundred obstacles, but we are merely those people who go ahead of the will of the people, and it is clear — Serbia and [Republika Srpska] will be deciding jointly about a joint destiny,” Nikolic said, B92 reported.
Neither of Serbia’s top officials — President Aleksandar Vucic and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic — were present at the celebrations, and there have been calls for them to publicly distance themselves from Nikolic, whose statements appeared to deny Bosnia’s territorial integrity.
Dodik has also received clear signals from the international community that his actions are not well accepted and could cost him a lot. In January last year, the US imposed sanctions on him after he ignored the constitutional court ban on Republic Day celebrations.
As expected, the latest celebration of Republic Day provoked a negative reaction from international community. The international community has shown that will no longer tolerate Dodik’s nationalistic rhetoric and gestures so a secession referendum is unlikely to be held. Dodik is well aware of the possible consequences for his political career should he decide to push for the referendum or take other similar steps.
As Republic Day got underway this year, the delegation of the European Commission to Bosnia said it was breaching the constitution and called on political leaders to focus on reforms. The US embassy in Bosnia also said that the ceremony breached the rule of law.