Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska (RS), underlined once again that membership of Bosnia and Herzegovina in NATO must be subject to approval in a referendum in RS. Dodik claims that the renewed call for a referendum is a result of a Constitutional Court decision transferring ownership of the Veliki Žep military object to the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Veliki Žep is a major military object from the Yugoslav era. Due to the secrecy of most military projects from that period, it is still not fully clear what the object contains or how developed it was, as most of it was sealed by SFOR in the aftermath of the Bosnian War. The disagreement between the Bosnian state and RS is based on legal and political issues. Legally, proponents of the decision state that ownership of numerous other objects has been already transferred to the state, including several police buildings and a prison. Politicians and legal experts in RS question the both the legal and political legitimacy of the Constitutional Court, claiming that it has no constitutional jurisdiction in these matters, as well as that the three foreign judges on the court are biased against Bosnian Serbs.
The political background and implications are possibly even more significant. The object served as headquarters for Bosnian Serb forces for a part of the Bosnian War, and was the location of several very bloody battles for its control, giving it large symbolic importance in RS. More importantly, the RS government fears that this transfer sets a precedent for transfer of other military objects in the entity, one of the last preconditions for NATO membership, as stated in Bosnia’s Membership Action Plan.
Organising or threatening to organise referendums are common tools for RS politicians in attempting to assert power within fragile federal politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2011, Dodik wanted to organise a referendum on the authority of the state’s judicial system, only withdrawing the decision after being warned by the High Representative that results will be annulled and that high-ranking RS officials may face sanctions. Similarly, a referendum on purported “illegal and unconstitutional imposition of laws by the High Representative” and implementing the decisions of the Prosecutor’s Office and Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina on RS territory was also not organised following international pressure.
Republika Srpska did organise a referendum on the National Day of Republika Srpska in 2016, directly opposing a decision of the Constitutional Court which established the holiday as unconstitutional, as it coincides with an Orthodox Serb holiday. An overwhelming majority of voters (99.8%) voted in favour of keeping the existing date, directly rejecting the Constitutional Court’s decision.
According to a survey conducted in RS in 2015, only 12.74% of the population would vote in favour of NATO membership, with 65.66% being against. The negative trend is consistent over time, with the results of different survey conducted in 2010 showed that 22.9% support membership, and 47% are opposed. Milorad Dodik, president of RS since 2010 and the most popular politician in the entity, has also stated that he would campaign against membership.
Politicians in Serbia, which declared military neutrality in 2007 and has a population that generally opposes NATO membership, have been largely silent on the issue. This is a departure from previous situations that involved constitutional tensions and potential referendums in RS, where they mostly served as mediators and helped deescalate tensions between the entities. Notably, media close to the current government have expressed their support to Dodik’s decision and to the (likely) outcome of Republika Srpska rejecting NATO membership.
Dodik has also indicated that the prospective referendum may include a question on support for Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Armed Forces, formed by unifying militaries of the two entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2005, are seen as a threat to the sovereignty of RS by nationalist elements in the entity.
The spectre of a referendum will likely remain part of rhetoric in RS for the near future. Whether or not it will be held is secondary to the fact that entity vocalising its strong opposition to NATO membership and emphasising its request to be consulted on future issues regarding cooperation with the Alliance. Nonetheless, it will serve very little purpose in furthering Bosnian politics and reducing ethnic tensions, especially at a point when a significant majority of citizens in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina do support NATO membership.
Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States