Bosnian Serb entity referendum to be held Sunday, situation increasingly tense

A referendum will be held in the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia and Herzegovina on Sunday in which voters in that entity will decide whether they want January 9 to continue to be marked as an entity holiday, and referendum plans have caused the biggest political crisis in the country since the end of the war in 1995, eliciting warnings about possible armed conflicts.

Security has been stepped up amid growing tensions in the country and some diplomatic offices, like the French embassy, have warned their nationals to be cautious if they plan to travel to the Bosnian Serb entity on Sunday.

According to data provided by the commission in charge of organising the referendum, slightly more than 1.2 million people have the right to vote.

"We have held intensive instructions for voter committees. There are around 2,000 such committees in the territory of Republika Srpska. Preparations have been completed and the referendum can be held practically tomorrow," Sinisa Karan, chair of the commission formed by the entity parliament, said earlier this week.

Polling stations are expected to open at 7 am and close at 7 pm. The results of the vote must be announced within 48 hours from the vote at the latest, but they are likely to be known already on Sunday evening.

The Serb entity parliament decided to hold the referendum on July 15 in response to a ruling by the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina of November 2015 under which marking January 9 as Republika Srpska Day is not in line with the country's constitution because it discriminates against Bosniaks and Croats living in that entity.

The Constitutional Court earlier also declared the entity anthem "God of Justice" unconstitutional and discriminatory and banned it as it did the entity coat of arms because it contained only insignia of the Serb people

When adopting the decision on Republika Srpska Day, the Constitutional Court bore in mind that January 9 was evocative of a day in 1992 when a part of Serb deputies in the then parliament of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina unlawfully declared a republic of the Serb people in Bosnia and Herzegovina requesting "territorial demarcation" in relation to Croats and Bosniaks and the integration of the Serb-dominated territory with Serbia.

It was an act of secession that was a prelude to the war in the country.

Under the Constitutional Court ruling, Bosnian Serb authorities were to align the entity law on holidays with the ruling, however, the entity parliament decided, acting on a proposal from the ruling SNSD party led by Milorad Dodik, to organise a referendum, challenging the Constitutional Court's jurisdiction even though its rulings are final and binding.

The Bosnian Serb authorities are determined to hold the referendum even though the Constitutional Court on September 17 made a temporary ruling banning the referendum.

The situation in the country and its structure are such that there are no mechanisms that could enforce the court ruling. The only available measure is to prosecute persons responsible for non-compliance with the Constitutional Court ruling.

It is also unclear what direct consequences the referendum will have on the entity law on holidays.

Bosnian Serb officials have given contradictory statements on whether the vote is of a binding or an advisory nature, with Karan describing it as "the expression of citizens' opinion" based on which the entity parliament will amend the part of the existing law on holidays pertaining to January 9.

"The amendments will possibly result in removing the obligation to commemorate the republic's day for those residents of Republika Srpska who do not want to mark that day as a public holiday," Karan said.

Parliament Speaker Nedjeljko Cubrilovic gave a more general comment on Friday.

"The National Assembly of Republika Srpska will launch the procedure for the adoption of a law on holidays that will define positions that will not insult other peoples and that will definitely require the consent of all," he said.

The plans for the referendum have elicited numerous reactions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and its neighbourhood. Political conflicts in the country have been prompted by estimates that the referendum challenges peace and the Dayton peace agreement that explicitly defines the obligation to respect Constitutional Court rulings.

The Bosniak Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bakir Izetbegovic, has said that the September 25 referendum was only a trial balloon for a possible future referendum on the Serb entity's secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Republika Srpska President Dodik has dismissed such claims but has confirmed that a referendum on the status of the Serb entity would remain an option if the situation in the country did not develop in a satisfactory way.

The most influential Western countries have condemned plans for the referendum, repeatedly calling on Bosnian Serb authorities to cancel it.

Officials of Serbia, too, have distanced themselves from the vote.

Russian Ambassador Petr Ivantsov was the only one to support the Serb entity, saying that for his country it was a people's inalienable right to organise such a vote.

However, after a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday, Dodik could not say that he had received unambiguous support for the referendum from Putin, noting only that the matter had not been discussed beyond the statement that it was a people's right.

Dodik's political opponents in the entity are increasingly critical about the referendum even though they supported it when the entity parliament voted on the matter.

They accuse him of using the referendum for his party's promotion ahead of local elections set for October 2.

Meanwhile media close to Dodik are conducting an aggressive pro-referendum campaign, with the entity public media service RTRS broadcasting daily videos calling on voters to participate in the Sunday referendum.

Last update: Fri, 23/09/2016 - 14:29
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