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The Republic Srpska Referendum and the Bleak Future of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bakir Izetbegović and Milorad Dodik

20 years after the end of the war in 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is still marred by lack of political progress and stuck in the situation of stabile unresolvedness. Recurrent political crises are a sad reality, whith political leaders of the two entities and three nationalist parties continuously pushing to establish sovereignty of their geographic or imagined territories in the hope that this will secure them a permanent ruling position. Quite often, they create turmoil to avert attention from more pressing social and economic problems resulting in challenging living conditions, particularly for elderly, children, unemployed and those in poor health.

This summer, the release of the long awaited census 2013 results confirmed extremely worrying facts. They showed shocking levels of illiteracy among the population across the country, the most blatant proof of lack of care and any interest on the part of the BiH political leadership in their citizens. Given the level of international presence and involvement, combined with one of the highest foreign donor post-war interventions in the world, what we know now is simply unacceptable. 146,000 citizens of BiH, 83.55% of this number are women, who are 15 years and older, have no education at all. 274,000 of the same age group, 69.6% women, have incomplete primary education, which means they have some years of primary school out of the compulsory eight. 640,726 are educated to the primary school level and interestingly more girls than boys have completed primary school. Only around 8% of the BiH population is educated to the university level of higher, and here the gender balance is levelled out, slightly in favour of female population (52% are women). Overall, of just over 3.5 million BiH citizens, where around 3 million are older than 15 years, approximately 12% are illiterate or functionally literate, while 18% have only primary school, staggering 30% combined.  Levels of education are correlated to voting patterns, access to services (health, social care), education and employment and the results should be a red flag for anyone who is interested and involved in the future of BiH.

In the latest political crisis, Milorad Dodik, leader of SNSD, is creating turmoil by pushing for a referendum, which is supposed to approve celebration of 9th January as the Day of Republic Srpska, in defiance of the decision of the Constitutional Court of BiH. This is the latest of his many attempts to ascertain conditions that would help him portray Republic Srpska as a sovereign state within BiH. Dodik has been using imminent threat of calling referendums in the past years: on secession of Republic Srpska and more recent one about non-recognition of the Constitutional Court of BiH. Finally, the referendum about the 9th January is going ahead and is scheduled to take place on 25th September despite extensive efforts of the international community to prevent it. The problem emerged when in 2013 Bakir Izetbegovic filed a formal protest against the 9th January celebration, which is an official holiday in Republic Srpska, with the Constitutional Court of BiH,. He argued that this is a day of territorial delimitation of Serbian territories, which makes it discriminating other ethnic groups in BiH. Furthermore, he reasoned that this date is Orthodox saint St. Stephan, celebrated as official slava (name day) of Republic Srpska, which allows for the use of religious symbols and iconography, which is discriminatory against non-Serb population. Noteworthy is that St. Stephen is a martyr celebrated by the entire Christian world, and not only Orthodox, as the first person to promote teaching of the Christ. In November 2015 the Constitutional Court of BiH ruled the Republic Srpska Law on State Holidays and this particular date were unconstitutional on the grounds of being discriminatory.

Until this formal challenge, the date has been celebrated for more than two decades, since theDeclaration on Proclamation of Republic of Serbian People (narodi) of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. Its formation was based on the decision of Serbian people in thereferendum held on 9th and 10th November 1991 to remain part of Yugoslavia. All citizens had the right to vote in the referendum, except that the ballot papers were different colour in line with their nationality (blue for Serbs and yellow for Croats and Muslims). They were asked to vote on different questions: Serbs if they agreed that Serbian people should remain part of new Yugoslav, while the non-Serbs were asked if they agreed that BiH as a republic should remain part of Yugoslavia. An overwhelming majority (98%) of the Serb voters, with a turnout of 85%, voted to remain in Yugoslavia which clearly provides grounds for Izetbegovic’s claim. On 25thSeptember, the history will not repeat itself as all voters will get uniform ballot papers and will be asked to answer one question: Do you support that 9th January is marked and celebrated as the Day of Republic Srpska?

For Dodik, pushing for the referendum and its implementation is important as it strengthens his position as a leader who is protecting Serbian interests, a marketing campaign that he desperately needs to win the forthcoming local elections in BiH. He is extremely concerned about their outcome after almost losing the presidential elections in 2014 to Ognjen Tadic by merely 7,500 votes or 1% of total votes casted and with support for his SNSD declining over a number of party and personal scandals. At the same time, he is building a case against the BiH Constitutional Court decision by giving opportunity to all of those who live in Republic of Srpska to vote on the 9th January and by this somehow making himself excluded from the jurisdiction of the BiH legal institutions. If he wins, he will be able to say that majority of Republic Srspka citizens made a decision, including non-Serbs. And he is likely to win given the ethnic composition of Republic Srpska voters who, even though they may dislike Dodik, are likely to vote in favour of the national day.

Despite the deepening crisis , the Constitutional Court of BiH remained firm on their decision. A few days ago, they rejected an appeal of the Peoples Assembly of Republic Srpska to revisit the whole process of declaring 9th January celebration and the Law on National Holidays of the Republic Srpska unconstitutional. At the same time, the Court upheld the appeal of Bakir Izetbegovic to prohibit the referendum, although the mechanism of putting this in practice is still not clear. It appears that Izetbegovic is a winner in this political manipulation, which he also hopes will bring him good results in the forthcoming local elections. But why did he wait for more than two decades to challenge the Day of Republic Srpska, despite his constant presence in BiH politics since the 1990s? In 2013 he was in his first mandate as a member of the rotating Presidency of BiH elected in 2010 and was facing both general (re)elections in 2014 and SDA party elections, where he was hoping to become the party president. His actions are clearly geared towards personal political gain, which makes him not very different from Dodik and both of them show very little genuine concern about the citizens of BiH.  International actors, particularly Russia as the lead international supporter of the referendumas well as the BiH political actors, such as Sefer Halilovic, better remember that 100,000 died and the country was shattered to pieces last time a Serbian referendum narrative and retaliation on the part of BiH were used for political goals.


Marika Djolai is an International Development Consultant and social inclusion Policy Analyst in the Western Balkans. She studied at the University of Novi Sad and the University College London and received her Doctorate in Development Studies (Conflict and Violence) from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. Since 1999 she is based in the UK where she worked for the UK political establishment and BBC Media Action. For number of years she worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina managing projects and conducting research for UNICEF, the British Council, the Delegation of the European Union to BiH and as a Visiting Researcher at the Faculty of Political Science in Sarajevo.


This article has been originally published at the Balkans in Europe Policy Blog of the Centre for Southeast European Studies in Graz and has been republished with permission. The original article can be found at: http://www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at/biepag/node/227

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