Will Republika Srpska’s national day referendum herald a vote on independence from Bosnia?

Will Republika Srpska’s national day referendum herald a vote on independence from Bosnia?
Milorad Dodik.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest September 28, 2016

By going ahead with the September 25 referendum on when to celebrate national day, the president of Republika Srpska, the Serb half of the divided Bosnia & Hercegovina nation, was testing the response of the central authorities and the international community. It is now up to them to decide how to react to the troublesome leader Milorad Dodik, whose next move, including a possible vote to secede from Bosnia, will depend on what actions are taken.

The dust is still settling in Bosnia after the referendum, where a startlingly 99.8% of voters backed a proposal to make January 9 the official Republic Day holiday – a result mostly explained by the decision of the entity’s small Bosniak population to boycott the vote. The Bosnian Constitutional Court had ruled in 2015 that the Republic Day holiday was unconstitutional because it discriminated against non-Serbs, and the court also banned the referendum.

This open defiance of the country’s top court can partly be explained by Dodik’s need to position himself as a nationalist; his once relatively moderate Party of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) has already overtaken the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) and is now seen as the hardline Serb nationalist political force in the Republika Srpska. In Bosnia’s current political climate, most parties see their best chances of electoral success in appealing to nationalist sentiment and stoking fears over the other main ethnic groups – the Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.

The referendum was seen as important because local elections will take place on October 2 and the SNSD had been lagging in the polls. Dodik and his party are now expected to gain a boost from the September 25 vote. The rival SDS, rather than the SNSD, is also part of the national-level ruling coalition in Sarajevo, which has encouraged Dodik to be increasingly uncooperative with the central government and Bosnia’s other entity, the Muslim-Croat Federation, as a bargaining tool to increase his influence over national events.

This has been seen many times in the past, for example when Dodik delayed signing amendments to Bosnia’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU earlier this year, thereby delaying approval of Bosnia’s EU membership application.

Dodik also has a personal political agenda, in that he’s trying to deflect attention away from a corruption scandal concerning his purchase of a luxury villa in Belgrade back in 2007. National-level prosecutors are reportedly investigating Dodik’s purchase of the €1.26mn villa in the swanky neighbourhood of Dedinje. He is believed to have paid for it in full – raising questions about where the money came from – but to have arranged a fake loan from local Pavlovic Banka the following year in an attempt to conceal this. Pavlovic is one of several banks in Republika Srpska that are being investigated in separate corruption probes.

“Dodik is continuing on his path of provoking conflict with the Bosnian state and international community in order to whip up nationalist feelings and cement his position,” Marko Attila Hoare, historian and associate professor at the UK’s Kingston University, tells bne IntelliNews. “Without the nationalist upswell, his leadership would be in trouble.”

Testing the boundaries

But Dodik’s motives go beyond short-term political gain, and are likely to have longer-term consequences, as he is not expected to stop with the Republic Day referendum.

“Dodik’s popularity has increased ahead of the local elections, when his party’s popularity had been falling, so there was an immediate short-term impact. However, there are long-term and deeper implications beyond the elections,” believes Cvete Koneska, an analyst at Control Risks. “This did not come out of the blue. Dodik has been testing how far he can go in denying the jurisdiction of the state level institutions in Republika Srpska. He has got away with a lot, but probably this was a step too far. This referendum was really about how the international community and Bosnian politicians will respond.”

While both the High Representative in Sarajevo Valentin Inzko and top EU officials called on Dodik to drop plans for the referendum in the run-up to the vote, the international community has been relatively quiet in the last few days. Inzko said in a September 26 statement that he was disappointed by Dodik’s decision to lead Republika Srpska and its people “away from reform and towards isolation”, and stressed that the referendum represented a challenge to the Bosnian Constitutional Court, its decisions, the constitutional framework of the country, and the rule of law in Bosnia.

However, Inzko did not comment on possible future action by the Office of the High Representative (OHR). This could be a sign that the international community will leave it to the institutions in Sarajevo to deal with the fallout – a move in keeping with the less interventionist stance of international actors in Bosnia. In theory the OHR has the power to dismiss Dodik, but that is unlikely. “The days when the OHR could dismiss the head of Republika Srpska are over, so it’s hard to say what they will actually do,” notes Hoare, adding that the EU is “in a bad way” at the moment.

Referendum days

Koneska points out that the vote comes in the context of the increasing number of referendums across Europe. Even though the vote was illegal, the fact that the population has spoken carries weight, meaning those who want to bring Dodik to account will have to act with caution. “After Brexit, when the majority voted in a plebiscite, the result cannot be ignored even by those who don’t like it,” she says.

Bosniak politicians in Sarajevo have been more vocal in their criticism. Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, slammed the referendum as a “notorious example of a violation” of the Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian War in 1995, and compared Dodik to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Wartime Bosnian Muslim commander Sefer Halilovic took an even stronger stance in advance of the referendum, claiming it would unpack the Dayton peace deal and could lead to war.

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Sarajevo have started an investigation into the illegal referendum, and reportedly summoned Dodik, along with several others, for questioning.

Dodik, never one to take criticism lying down, hit back by saying he was planning to sue Izetbegovic and to challenge another holiday – the countrywide Bosnian Independence Day – through the Constitutional Court. He also used Izetbegovic’s likening of him to Gaddafi (which the president later said was a mistake) as a pretext not to visit state prosecutors, claiming he “would not feel safe” going to the capital of Sarajevo.

Aside from the state-level politicians and the international community, Dodik’s next steps will be telling. Having held his first referendum, the question now is whether – or perhaps how – he will push the situation further, possibly even by opting for the nuclear option of a referendum on Republika Srpska’s secession from Bosnia. “If Dodik finds he can get away with [holding the Republic Day referendum], then the likelihood of a future referendum on secession is more likely,” forecasts Koneska.

Having said that, there are those that argue his preeminent position in Republika Srpska within a Bosnia that is recognised and supported by international financial institutions serves Dodik better than if the entity breaks away to become either a tiny rogue state or part of a larger Serbia.

Serbia’s stance was critical in the run-up to the referendum, with Aleksandar Vucic’s government declining to back the referendum as it walks a tightrope between Belgrade’s EU ambitions and the need not to alienate nationalist voters at home. Not so Russia, which refused to join fellow members of the Peace Implementation Council in appealing to Dodik to drop plans for the referendum. Dodik even visited Vladimir Putin a few days before the vote, though the Russian president stopped short of explicitly endorsing the referendum. However, as Dimitar Bechev, director of the European Policy Institute think tank in Sofia, points out, “For the first time Serbia and Russia were openly on opposite sides of the barricades.”

Once it becomes clear what – if any – sanctions Republika Srpska will face over the September 25 referendum, gauging the response from both Belgrade and Moscow will be crucial when Dodik comes to deciding on his next steps. Serbia’s restraint in the run-up to the election is an encouraging sign for the future stability of the region.

“It may not be in his interests to actually go for full independence – at least at this stage – but nevertheless the question is whether his actions will create a momentum he will then find difficult to stop,” warns Hoare. “The referendum is just another step in Dodik’s calculated provocations… I don’t see this as the decisive turning point, but if it does come to a point where he declares independence or things turn violent, then there will be grave international repercussions.”