On consecutive Sundays, voters in Bosnia went to the polls amid rising ethnic tensions that are jeopardizing the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Neither a referendum in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, nor local elections held nationwide, did anything to alleviate the ethnic division.
In the week leading up to the referendum, war talk made headlines in the Balkans. A wartime Bosnian Army commander suggested the Serb entity, Republika Srpska, could be occupied in 15 days. The suggestion prompted Belgrade to issue a statement saying it would come to the defense of its fellow Serbs if Republika Srpska was attacked. Zagreb also offered backing for the Bosnian Croats.
On Sept. 25, Republika Srpska held a referendum on its national holiday. Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik proceeded with the vote in defiance of the Bosnian Constitutional Court, which ruled the referendum was illegal. Many observers viewed the referendum as a test-run for a vote on secession from Bosnia.
Last year, the Constitutional Court declared Republika Srpska Day, which is celebrated on Jan. 9, to be unconstitutional because it discriminates against non Serbs. The holiday marks the date in which Republika Srpska declared independence from Bosnia in the lead-up to the Bosnian War, and it coincides with an Orthodox Christian holiday.
Those who voted in the referendum gave overwhelming support for the holiday. Officials in Banja Luka said 99.8 percent of voters chose to preserve Republika Srpska Day.
Banja Luka reported voter turnout in the referendum was 55.8 percent. Bosniak residents of Republika Srpska boycotted the referendum, and some allegations of manipulated voter turnout numbers surfaced after the vote. However, there is little dispute that Bosnian Serbs favor keeping their holiday.
On Sunday, nationalist parties emerged victorious in the local elections held both in Repbulika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bosniak and Croat-dominated entity.
In the Bosnian Serb entity, Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats made large gains, winning several more municipalities than it currently controls. Heading into the election, it appeared a pro-EU coalition would pose a significant challenge to the Social Democrats. However, Dodik’s decision to schedule the referendum one week ahead of local elections likely boosted support for the Social Democrats in mayoral and council races.
One particularly significant race appeared to have resulted in a Serb candidate being elected mayor of Srebrenica. Bosniaks contested the results, though, and elections officials ordered a recount, which was then halted by Republika Srpska police. The Srebrenica area is the location of the 1995 mass murder of Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces. Even though Srebrenica is part of Republika Srpska, Bosniaks have controlled the city’s mayoral office since the end of the Bosnian War.
In the Federation, a convicted war criminal was elected mayor of the northwestern town of Velika Kladusa. The mayor-elect, Bosniak businessman Firkin Abdic, served 10 years in a Croatian prison.
The main Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), appears to have cemented its status as the dominant force in the largely Muslim areas of the Federation. SDA and Dodik’s Social Democrats are bitter rivals in national level politics.
Trailing SDA, the Croatian Democratic Union, the main Bosnian Croat party, was the second biggest winner in the Federation.
The referendum and election results will likely empower Dodik to keep pursuing his nationalist agenda, which includes undercutting the authority of Bosnian state institutions and possibly pursuing secession. In turn, Sarajevo’s bid to join the EU and NATO will likely face further delays.
Dodik has repeatedly threatened to hold a referendum on secession, and his party has stated it could do so as soon as 2018. Some observers suggest Dodik is bluffing and is only making the threat as a ploy to stay in power in Banja Luka. Others say Dodik is incrementally challenging state institutions, like the constitutional court, as a way to gauge the feasibility of a vote on secession.
Though the West opposes Dodik’s agenda, the Bosnian Serb leader is facing little pushback from the international community.
Following last month’s referendum, Bosnian prosecutors summoned Dodik to Sarajevo for questioning in a criminal probe into the vote. Dodik refused to comply with the summons.
Other Bosnian officials speculated the West would impose sanctions on Dodik and Republika Srpska for holding the referendum. Thus far, there are no signs of impending sanctions.
Meanwhile, Dodik enjoys the political backing of Russia. Three days prior to the vote, Dodik traveled to Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin who endorsed the referendum. Russia was the only country to support the vote; not even Serbia did so. Belgrade took a neutral stance on the referendum.
Critics say Moscow is backing Dodik and fostering division in Bosnia in an attempt to prevent the country from joining the EU and NATO.
Just days before the referendum, Brussels formally accepted Bosnia’s application to join the EU. However, Brussels is not planning on offering membership to Bosnia anytime in the near future.
Earlier this year, EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn said Bosnian membership in the union would not be possible in a couple months or even a few years.