September 2016 – BOSNIA – Bosnian Serbs vote on Sunday in a referendum over a disputed national holiday, defying Bosnia’s highest court and Western pressure to call off a process that risks stoking ethnic tensions in the divided Balkan country. The referendum, on whether to mark Jan. 9 as “Statehood Day” in the Serb Republic part of Bosnia, will be the first since the 1992 vote on secession from Yugoslavia that ignited three years of ethnic war in which 100,000 were killed. Voter turnout was a little more than 30 percent by 1100 GMT, referendum organizers said. Polling stations will close at 1700 GMT and preliminary results are expected within 48 hours.
The Sarajevo-based Constitutional Court has ruled that the holiday would be illegal because it coincides with a Serbian Orthodox Christian holiday and so discriminates against Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats living in the Serb Republic. The court also banned the referendum. Jan. 9 is the date when Bosnian Serbs declared independence from Bosnia in 1992, precipitating Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War Two, marked by mass killings and persecution of Bosniaks and Croats in the territory they earmarked to become exclusively Serb. The region’s government has said it would comply with the court’s ruling on the “Statehood Day” and make changes to its law on holidays to ensure it was not discriminating against other peoples, but only after the vote.
“This day is important for me to confirm why I took part in the war and lost my arm,” said 45-year-old war invalid Novak Kajkut before casting his vote in the region’s capital of Banja Luka. “We don’t dispute the right of the Muslim Bosniaks to mark their holidays but they can neither dispute this right to us.” The Serbs celebrate the holiday by hanging out Serb flags and holding Orthodox Christian ceremonies in public institutions, which non-Serbs say is aimed at excluding them. Many believe that by defying the court ruling, Serb Republic President Milorad Dodik is aiming to highlight the weakness of post-war Bosnia’s central authorities and set the stage for a vote on secession.
Dodik said that the right to hold the referendum should not be questioned, though Western diplomats have warned that it violates the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war and could prompt sanctions or criminal charges against the organizers. While the United States, which brokered the Dayton treaty and the European Union called on the Serb Republic to cancel the vote, fearing instability, Russia voiced support.
Some Bosniak politicians said it would weaken Bosnia’s delicate structure, created to hold the country together in the aftermath of the war. Many in the region fear that the Serb Republic could be preparing to secede, bringing the future of Bosnia as a whole into doubt. Talk of a new war has increased tensions, prompting the Serb Republic police to raise the security level at the weekend. The police said that no incidents have been reported so far. “There will be no war, nobody will destroy Republika Srpska,” Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak chairman of the country’s three-man inter-ethnic presidency, said on Saturday. “We shall guard this country and the Dayton peace agreement, and all citizens, the Serbs and the Croats and the Bosniaks.” –Reuters