An estimated 30,000 people gathered in the Republika Srpska (RS) capital of Banja Luka at noon on Saturday for separate demonstrations called by the government and the opposition in the Serb entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
At least 10,000 opposition supporters led by the Serb Democratic Party (SDP) gathered in the city's Mladen Stojanovic Park, expressing their dissatisfaction with the years of rule of RS President Milorad Dodik. Pro-government demonstrators rallied in the nearby main square. No incidents were reported.
Opposition leaders told the crowd that the Dodik government was responsible for totalitarian rule and the financial and economic destruction of RS.
The Serb member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency, Mladen Ivanic, said that the opposition would not give up their democratic right to express their opinion. "We have won by holding today's rally," he said, stressing that they never considered "causing any trouble or violence".
"This is a victory over a dictatorship, this is the beginning. Next time there will be more of us because we're not afraid anymore," Ivanic said at the rally, adding that the Dodik government made the biggest mistake by calling the opposition supporters traitors.
SDS deputy leader Sonja Karadzic, the daughter of indicted war criminal Radovan Karazdic, said that the opposition would have the strength to help the disenfranchised if it won voters' support.
Member of the RS parliament Milanko Mihajlica said that the Dodik government had stolen billions and was now using all means available to stay in power "like the supreme head of a criminal organisation".
"Milorad Dodik must realise that he cannot buy everything," said Bosnia and Herzegovina's Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations, Mirko Sarovic, adding that the opposition showed that it could be an alternative to the current authorities in RS.
The crowd was shouting "Milorad, you thief!" and "He's finished", and demonstrators carried banners saying that the RS president should be locked up in jail.
Meanwhile, in the nearby main square Dodik thanked his followers for their support, saying that the number of his supporters was seven times that of his opponents.
"We must defend RS from treason from within," Dodik said, claiming that the SDS and other RS opposition parties were part of the ruling coalition at the state level.
Using nationalistic rhetoric, Dodik said that the Serbs would never be free without their own state and that otherwise they would be "rounded up and killed in Jasenovac," referring to a WWII death camp in Croatia. "RS is our state. I don't care about anyone, any snobbish foreigners, saying this is not a state. For us this is a state," he said.
One of the speakers at the pro-government rally was Darko Mladic, the son of indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic, who called for Serb unity.
Representatives of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) and associates of Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj also came to express their support for Dodik.
"Is there anything more honourable than being a follower of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who created RS," said Dragan Djurdjevic, head of the RS branch of the Serbian Radical Party, conveying Seselj's greetings to Dodik's supporters.
The pro-government demonstration lasted an hour and a half, while the opposition rally lasted considerably longer.
RS Interior Minister Dragan Lukac said that more than 300 buses full of demonstrators had arrived in Banja Luka by 11am. He said that about 150 people, who wanted to join either rally, had been stopped on the border with Serbia.
Lukac said that the police had banned planned marches by the two groups through the city centre to avoid possible violent confrontations. "The police, with the present force, will not be able to control them," he said, adding that over 2,000 police had been deployed in the city.
The city centre was closed to all traffic, and the police set up metal barriers to prevent any contact between the rival groups. The opposition had invited their supporters to come to Banja Luka to express their dissatisfaction with the current political, economic and social situation in Republika Srpska.
in Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said it was important that the two rallies passed peacefully and that stability was preserved.
Some media in the region said that the demonstrations were financed by the Open Society Foundation owned by Hungarian-American business magnate George Soros, who allegedly provided 500,000 euros for this purpose.